For years, gamers have developed feelings for characters that don't exist in the traditionally tangible world. They might look real, but the characters are a composition of art and reality. They are virtual.
But what if a virtual person was passed off as real? Or what if a real person was thought to be virtual? That's exactly what is happening in Japan.
Located in Japan's geek heaven Akihabara, AKB48 is the country's most popular female pop group. With give-or-take 48 members, you'd think AKB48 would have enough idols to appeal to all fans. Its latest member is Aimi Eguchi, who has rocketed from obscurity to become the poster girl for a Japanese ice candy, Ice no Mi.
What's caused such a stir is just how quickly Eguchi has ascended up the idol ranks. AKB48 fans follow the idols very closely, and the diehards can rattle off their names, hobbies, and vital statics. This is why one bundle for AKB48 PSP game came with photos and battery covers for all 48 girls.
Even with such scrutiny, Eguchi has debuted. She apparently tried out for the Osaka-based version of AKB48, NMB48, but is joining AKB48 as a research student (think, idol-in-training). Following the announcement of this news on June 11, Eguchi appeared in the Weekly Playboy (no relation to the "entertainment for men" Playboy) cover spread and a nationwide ad campaign for Aisu no Mi - both of which are unheard of for an AKB48 research student. Aisu no Mi is from candy maker Glico, based in Osaka.
The popularity of AKB48 members is voted on by fans; only the popular girls appear in commercials.
In the Weekly Playboy spread, Eguchi is referred to as the "ultimate" - the ultimate pretty girl living out the ultimate fairytale.
But maybe she's nervous. Or maybe it's because she was created in a hard drive to sell this snack.
Cynical as ever, Japanese netizens have been quick to pounce, noting that Eguchi's photos appear to be doctored. Photoshop isn't new to magazine layouts in Japan (and the West for that matter), but Eguchi's photos look so doctored that netizens are drawing comparisons between them and photos that appear on bait-and-switch Korean massage parlours.
Netizens believe that Eguchi's appearance is a composite of the most popular AKB48 girls - real girls that appear in the Aisu no Mi ad.
Eguchi does appear to be somewhat stiff in the commercial, and her mouth movements appear off. But maybe she's nervous. Or maybe it's because she was created in a hard drive to sell this snack. As one Netizen notes, her first name "Aimi" (愛実) could be a wordplay on "Aisu no Mi" (アイスの実). The name of the song AKB48 sing in the snack commercial is "Aisu no Kuchizuke" or "Ice Kiss".
Believers say Eguchi is real, pointing to her profile listing on the official AKB48 site, and bat away cynical notions that she was created simply to drum up publicity. "Hollywood can't even create CG this good," wrote one individual.
Japan has created virtual idols in the past, such as Kyoko Date in the late 1990s and, more recently, Miku Hatsune. With Kyoto Date, there was an effort to pass her off as "real" - though everybody knew she was a computer creation. Uncanny Valley territory, it wasn't. With Aimi Eguchi, those clear distinctions are being blurred.
Is Aimi Eguchi real? Or is this seemingly perfect idol just too good to be real?