Amongst the plethora of unscripted formats of 2020, I would deem one worthy of far more attention that it actually got: it is the Chinese Format Dimension Nova. The program was broadcasted on iQUYI, one of the major and most relevant global streaming platforms. What is it about? It is a talent show with a mostly traditional structure. It is staged inside the Dimension Nova Museum (a kind of parallel virtual reality set resembling the world of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts). Within this set 3 Expansion Mentors (the super-young teen stars Angelababy, Wang Linkai and Esther Yu from THE9) judge the performances of 22 contestants (the rookie warriors), in order to decide who will join their team. The peculiarity of the show is that the contestants are not real: they are “virtual idols”, animated in motion capture. So far, CGI and virtual reality has been quite widely used in television, with various effects (see formats as Lost in Time and Too Shy to Date). Yet two main distinctive characteristics make Dimension Nova utterly unique.
The first characteristic regards the narrative. The massive use of technology is perfectly integrated with both the structure of the format and the key aspects of the (talent) genre: the “virtual idols” are introduced -and behave- just as any other real life contestant would (during the program there are clips of their “past life”; whoever passes the turn goes in the Advancement room and can see the other contestants’ performances through a monitor… etc). There is even room for them to express their feelings, and their personal relationships with the three judges is also showcased.
The second distinctive characteristic involves the technology: there is no more barrier between the “real” and the “virtual” world. This is made possible by a real-time data combination between motion capture and real-time rendering for recording, together with the use of augmented reality cameras and other cutting-edge technologies previously unimaginable in this kind of show. Furthermore, there are no (better: they are not shown) screens: the virtual idols smoothly interact, dance and sing together with the 3 young judges (and with the Dimension Nova Museum Curator, a popular Mongolian pop singer). This wide and continuous “real” & “virtual” integration is developed, at 360 degrees, within a cross-dimensional space – and this represents the most innovative element of the format.
This program clearly embodies a new trend that is becoming more and more popular: Hybrid Shows. Where the “real” and the “virtual” coexist. At each passing day, these kind of shows seem to be building the future of entertainment. Another worth-mentioning example of the virtual-real integration trend, is the extraordinary success of the female K-pop Aespa, where real-life people and digital idols are singing together, as there was no difference between them.
What this trend means is that new technological, social and most importantly commercial scenarios are currently opening, and their potential is virtually limitless. In China itself, the format raised mixed reactions: many criticised it on the social networks (as it usually happens with innovative products), but it also had a lot of viewers – to the point that a second series is currently on talks. Perhaps, unscripted formats have found a new dimension.