Yesterday (January 28), a brand new fan community app called UNIVERSE launched worldwide, promising exclusive content and interactions with a ton of K-pop idols. There are some big names involved – Monsta X, Ateez, (G)I-DLE, Cosmic Girls, and The Boyz, to name just a few – so we took a dive into the new virtual world to see if it was worth the hype.
The exclusive content is pretty good (or it seems to be)
A big component of UNIVERSE is a ton of exclusive content – photos, videos, “radio”, new music and reality shows. So far, there’s been one single in the form of IZ*ONE’s ‘D-D-Dance’ – a solid bop – and we’re all for any opportunities to get more new tunes. There’s nothing under photo or radio for most groups yet, but there are a host of new shows to watch. Kang Daniel takes the lead in Agent Blackjack K and Monsta X star in Area 51: The Code, which both sound great from the titles alone. Both seem good too, although we had no idea what was going on because there’s currently no subtitles. Which leads us to…
There are no – or few – subtitles
UNIVERSE being a Korean app featuring Korean artists, you expect the content to be in Korean. But, given the app has been released worldwide, you’d also expect there to be subtitles on said content so global users can interact with it as well. The settings menu suggests you can get translations in multiple languages, but where is it? A ton of K-pop fans are learning Korean, but it would be nice if UNIVERSE could deliver what it promises.
It’s not the most user-friendly app
If you’re trying to read the comments on a piece of video content – e.g. to check you’re not the only one who can’t see subtitles – it’ll take you away from the video. When you get a notification that an artist you follow has made a new post, you can’t click on the notification and be taken to said post. When I tried to check the lack of subtitles wasn’t down to me not setting it up right, I accidentally put it in Japanese and it took at least an hour to work out how to get it back to English. The app in general is buggy and slow, and pretty awkward to use, which is something that might get better over time, but makes it pretty frustrating overall.
The AI voice calls
If you pay for membership to UNIVERSE and add passes to your account, you can add idols as your “friends”. Once you’ve done that, you can message them and have “private calls” with them. Of course, the members of Monsta X are not just lying around in Seoul waiting for fans around the world to hit their line. Instead, the voice calls are done via AI recreation of the idols’ voices, which to begin with is a little weird. Do we really need to be paying to talk to a disembodied voice meant to sound like our fave K-pop stars? I reckon not.
Things get weirder though. You have to reserve a call, presumably so the AI can figure out how to say your name or whatever you ask your chosen idol to refer to you as. You can choose you idol to sound informal, formal or either and select a call scenario, e.g. greetings, before sleep, birthday. There’s an option for a “chemistry” scenario”, which is reportedly something more “flirty/romantic” (you can only reserve one call a day).
If you don’t speak Korean, then good luck understanding what your person is saying when you get the call – there are no subtitles. They also don’t even try and make it like a normal conversation, instead just firing off their message with no gap for you to say anything other than “hello”. Some Korean users online have reported that some conversations include questions like “where do you live?” or telling you not to make your idol wait in future, which seem… borderline uncomfortable at best.
We’re still trying to figure out if the messaging side of things is done by AI. It’s possibly not, because I messaged Monsta X’s Joohoney asking how he was hours ago and still no response. For now, I’m hoping it’s not AI because being ghosted by a K-pop idol is one thing, but being ghosted by a robot is a low no one needs.
The sexualisation of idols’ avatars
Another feature of UNIVERSE is the ability to dress up avatars of the idols who are involved in the app. Once you’ve done that, you can film a virtual music video with the band, adding lighting and stage effects and more. Great! Fun! Except the avatars themselves are a little problematic.
When you head to an artist’s “planet”, you’re greeted with one of the virtual recreations of one of the members. If you tap on them, they’ll do a dance or strike a pose for you. With the female idols, though, these feel unnecessarily sexualised. If the guys can do dance moves that aren’t overtly sexy then why can’t the women? Given that female idols are often subjected to this treatment far more often than their male counterparts, it’s sadly not surprising that this is the case with UNIVERSE, but that doesn’t mean it should be allowed to fly.
Before UNIVERSE dropped, we were pretty excited for it, if sceptical of the AI aspect. Unfortunately, while the creepy elements of it persist, it feels pretty uncomfortable to use the app. If they got rid of the voice calls, messages, weird avatar moves and sorted the bugs, maybe we can get on board. Until then, though, I’ll have to live with not knowing how Joohoney is doing – UNIVERSE is being deleted off my phone ASAP.