After Du Ang left, Fang Zhao examined his office carefully.
Apart from his office desk and mini-computer, the most glaring items were a row of bookcases.
Very few people read physical books these days, but there were still a few. Some folks liked to go retro, others liked the look and feel of paper.
The bookshelves in the office held up to some 10,000 volumes. Some of them looked new, some were dog-eared from repeated use. Perhaps it was the improvement of paper quality, but Fang Zhao didn’t see any damaged pages. Or maybe the damaged books had already been replaced with new ones.
Who knew how many department heads the bookshelves had survived.
Fang Zhao scanned the collection. Most of the books were about virtual idols, including volumes covering the history of virtual idols, technological advancements in the field, and aesthetic design.
"Virtual Idols and Their Cultural Characteristics," "The Aesthetics of the Virtual Idol Body," "Emotional Expression in the Virtual Idol," "An Introduction to the Reg Dimension," and so on.
Fang Zhao picked a book about the cultural development of virtual idols and began reading in his office chair.
The office was much nicer than his surroundings on the black street. There were no distractions. He had enough light with the window open; he didn’t need to turn on a light.
Browsing the book, Fang Zhao could sense how far along the entertainment industry had come. The virtual revolution began in the 206th year of the New Era, when the so-called "father of virtual idols" invented the "Reg Dimension," which launched virtual idols onto the big stage. The open competition between real celebrities and virtual idols marked the pinnacle of the virtual age.
"After the apocalypse, the world economy recovered rapidly. Technological advancements proliferated, among them the advent of digital technology, which converted all available data into a digital format and created a new sensory experience that encompassed sight, smell, and other human senses. Through certain algorithms and procedures, the digital revolution also paved the way for images, texts, sounds, and physical shapes that didn’t exist in the real world."
"Virtual forms derived from digital technology are a by-product of mankind’s visual era. They crossed over from the virtual world to appear life-like in front of regular people, dazzling audiences on screen and injecting life into convention centers. The Reg Dimension is undoubtedly a ground-breaking invention.
Fang Zhao was fascinated by the book’s overview of the Reg Dimension.
The Reg Dimension was a virtual world, an application blending physics and computer science, invented by the New Era’s so-called "father of virtual idols," Reg Smith, 300 years ago. Virtual idols were created with this program.
Three hundred years ago, Reg Smith revolutionized virtual technology with the invention of the Reg Dimension, which enabled future digital artists to craft better and more realistic virtual forms.
The Reg Dimension encompassed billions of colors, overcoming the limitations of digital projection, making the movement of virtual idols smoother and more natural. Regardless of vantage point, they looked like real humans when beamed into life.
To quote the book: "The creation of a virtual idol is the process of creating an image in the virtual world and breathing life into it."
Virtual idols born into the Reg Dimension were refreshed by new ideas digital artists brought to the table and advancements in digital technology.
In the past 300 years, virtual technology has gone through countless upgrades that have perfected the virtual idol, but all these breakthroughs were built on the foundation of the Reg Dimension. You could say the Reg Dimension was the cornerstone of virtual technology.
Reg Smith created the Reg Dimension, laying the groundwork for the golden age of virtual idols, but 300 years later, Reg Smith and the golden age were long gone. That wasn't the program’s fault. The key was human talent.
Human expertise was the driving force behind the Reg Dimension, the "hand of god" that shaped virtual idols.
If he had the choice, Fang Zhao would've loved to time travel to 300 years ago and see the golden age of virtual idols for himself, the period so well-documented in books and film. Footage wouldn’t leave as deep of an impression as the real thing.
Back in the real world, Fang Zhao had a problem on his hands. He could find the technical expertise, but first he had to decide what his virtual idol would look like.
The book said, "In the Reg Dimension, you’re an artist with a pencil or a sculptor with a chisel, ready to bring your dreams to life."
Fang Zhao’s dilemma: what would he draw or sculpt if he had a pen or chisel?
Just as Fang Zhao was deep in thought, he had visitors—three of them, no less.
The head of the arrangement department, Ya Erlin, operations head Julian, and the head of back office operations, Bu Lai, showed up together.
"Geez, what a rare sight it is to see someone on this floor again." Ya Erlin raised his seemingly boneless finger and pointed at the corners of the office. "It’s still too empty."
"No worries. It’s Fang Zhao, right?" The head of back office operations, Bu Lai, assumed a paternal tone. "I’ll have a sofa shipped over tomorrow. Let me know if you need anything else. As long as it’s not too much trouble, I’ll take care of it."
"Don’t be a stranger with Bu Lai. He’s got tons of funding. Siphon off a little and you can take care of things," Julian joked.
The trio were curious about the project. They also felt that it was poor form to assign such a dead-end project to a newcomer, not to mention the newcomer who performed the best in the new talent contest. Wasn’t this hazing?
Even though they felt bad, they would never take on the project themselves. All Bu Lai was offering was to throw some resources his way. They didn’t want to touch the project itself.
"Fang Zhao, I know your expertise is composition. How much do you know about virtual idols?" Julian asked.
When it came to their age, Fang Zhao was much older than even Bu Lai, the oldest of the group, but he was trapped in a young body. Sensing their patronizing attitude, Fang Zhao didn’t take the conversation seriously. As for Julian’s question, Fang Zhao pondered and said, "Virtual idols are like Xun Huai and Fei Lisi."
The three department heads went silent for several seconds. That was a tough comment to follow up on.
After a while, Julian joked, "Don’t set your bar too high, young man. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed.
Everyone knew the other two Big Three companies excelled at producing virtual idols, especially Tongshan True Entertainment. Anyone they launched drew tens of millions of fans. Xun Huai was another success. They had even started putting him in movies, which meant he would become even more popular. The two-bit virtual idols of Silver Wing were no match.
"There’s no need to set your sights on Xun Huai and Fei Lisi. Ai, just do your best. If you fail, we won’t blame you," Bu Lai said with a sigh.
Hovering in the horizon, Ya Erlin rolled his eyes. Sure, they wouldn’t blame Fang Zhao, but the higher ups were a different story.
"Do the three of you have favorite virtual idols?"
"Of course." Ya Erlin was about to say something but pretended to laugh instead. "That was so long ago. It’s not worth mentioning."
Fang Zhao shifted his gaze to Julian and Bu Lai. The two of them weren’t in a sharing mood either.
"We were just concerned. Fang Zhao, we gotta get back to work." Bu Lai waved and headed out.
"I should get going too."
Julian and Ya Erlin followed suit. Barely out the door, Ya Erlin was glad he had stopped his train of thought. If he said too much and Fang Zhao created a virtual idol based on his ideas, he would be blamed for the failed project too.
"Thank God I caught myself. Thank God."
After the three department heads left, Fang Zhao was just a few more pages into his book when another person showed up.
The new arrival was about 30. His beard was a mess and his palm-length hair resembled a mop. There was a mark on his face, probably made when he fell asleep on his desk. This was the lone staffer Du Ang had mentioned.
"How are you? I’m Zu Wen, a technician in the virtual idol department."
"I’m Fang Zhao, the new producer." Fang Zhao signaled Zu Wen to find himself a chair.
Zu Wen pulled up a chair casually and sat down, legs spread. "I know about you. The whole department has heard."
Fang Zhao knew his new reputation didn’t stem from the new talent contest. Even though the competition was important to newcomers, it wasn't not so important to other staffers. He had an idea where his newfound renown derived from.
The whole company knew that the virtual idol project had been dumped onto a newcomer from the composition department. It was a hot topic on internal message boards. A techie like Zu Wen had to be up to date.
"So we’re the only two people left on the project?" Fang Zhao asked.
"Yep, it’s just us two," Zu Wen responded lackadaisically. "There used to be three more people. They applied for transfers this morning when they heard you were assigned to the project."
So before Fang Zhao’s arrival, the virtual idol department hadn’t been gutted entirely. There were four staffers this morning. The department hadn’t had a manager since last year’s project failed. The last department head/producer was still hospitalized. Word has it he took the failure hard and was mired in deep depression. He’d been resting in the hospital since. No one knew exactly how he was doing.
Since they didn’t have a boss, the staffers behaved like carefree shepherds, signing in and then napping and gaming until the workday was over. Their pay wasn’t great, but it didn’t require much effort.
After word spread that the department was being revived, the three staffers fled.
"Why did you decide to stay?" Fang Zhao asked. "How come everyone else left and you decided to stay?"
"I didn’t transfer in time," Zu Wen said with a yawn. "I fell asleep writing my transfer application. I just woke up."
Fang Zhao: "…..."
No wonder Du Ang didn’t lash out at Zu Wen when he caught him napping. He was probably afraid that he would scare off the final employee.
Zu Wen kept yawning. Fang Zhao suddenly asked, "You follow any pop stars?"
"You mean the virtual idols that are active on the internet these days?"
"Yes, but older ones count too."
"If that’s the case, no." Zu Wen flashed his white teeth. "Because I’m a Reg Dimension technician.
Fang Zhao remembered reading in his book that most Reg Dimension technicians shared the same mindset: I only worship the idols I create. The existing pop idols on the market were created by others. My idol has to be the product of my own imagination.