The Avatar show in London offers a glimpse into the future of live music

LONDON – Ahead of the start of ‘ABBA Voyage,’ the London concert performed by 3D digital avatars of the iconic Swedish band, member Björn Ulvaeus said they hoped audiences would “feel like they’ve been through something, that they have never seen before. “

Following its May 27 debut, much of the response from national and international critics, fans and industry professionals has been enthusiastic.

“Other than the team involved, no one really knew how they were going to integrate an avatar-based performance,” Sarah Cox, director of live events technical consultancy Neutral Human, told CNBC. “As someone who works on real-time graphics, this blew me away. My jaw hit the floor. If you look around people really think ABBA is there.”

Demand has been strong – the show’s runtime has been extended to November 2023 and may well extend beyond that.

And the team has confirmed that they intend to take the show around the world.

“Our goal is to do another ABBA Voyage, say in North America, Australasia, we could do another one in Europe. We can duplicate the arena and the show,” producer Svana Gisla told a UK government committee meeting in November.

What can fans expect from ABBA's new virtual concert ABBA Voyage?

Other shows are also expected to start under the same model.

“The technology itself is not new, but the way we have used it and the scale and barriers we have broken down are new. I’m sure others will follow and plan to follow,” Gisla said.

That could “absolutely” be the case somewhere like Las Vegas, where some shows run 24/7 with rotating crews, she added.

“We have live musicians, so we keep our band and play seven shows five days a week. But you could roll 24/7. Vegas will quickly adopt that style of entertainment and play Elvis or the Beatles.”

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Voyage’s venue, dubbed the ABBA Arena, was purpose-built for the show on grounds in Stratford, east London, with a capacity of 3,000 consisting of standing room, tiered seating on three sides with no obstructed views and more expensive private ‘dance booths’. , as well as space for the extensive kit positioned in the roof and what the creators of White Void say is the world’s largest permanent kinetic lighting installation.

View of ABBA Arena on May 26, 2022 in London, England.

Dave J Hogan | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

It was also designed for flexibility. Built on a three-foot raised platform without breaking the ground, it could be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere – or left in place and put on another show in the future.

But emulating Voyage’s model – in which digital recreations of the four band members perform 90 minutes of classic hits and newer numbers while also interacting with each other and speaking to the audience between songs – will not be an easy task.

The show was five years in the making and had a budget of £141 million (US$174.9 million). Budget funded by global investors. Around 3 million people need to get through the doors to break even, according to Gisla, and the average ticket price is £75.

After choosing their set list and making other creative decisions, the ABBA members performed in motion capture suits for five weeks. Hundreds of visual effects artists then worked on the show for two years, spearheaded by the London office of Industrial Light & Magic, a visual effects company founded by George Lucas.

Promotional image for ABBA Voyage, the digital avatar-based live show currently running in London.

Johan Persson | ABBA journey

A decade ago, a Coachella performance wowed audiences with an apparent hologram of Tupac Shakur, hinting at the potential of alternate reality in live shows, digitally recreating the artist’s likeness without the use of archival footage.

While it didn’t meet the technical definition of a hologram that uses laser beams to construct an object with depth, the visual effects team projected a 2D image onto an angled piece of glass, which in turn was projected onto a Mylar canvas, creating a 3D effect was created. Shakur then “played” two songs with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, 16 years after his death.

The Voyage team isn’t sure exactly how their show works, but have previously confirmed it’s not a laser-based hologram either. They are 65 million pixel screens that give the real-time impression of the band performing life-size on stage in 3D, with traditional-style concert screens showing close-ups and different views on either side.

Its servers are pushed to the “absolute extreme” to render the images without lag, Gisla says, causing them to shake through some transitions. She also acknowledged that the 10-meter-tall sidewalls are “very unforgiving” on the detail and that improvements could be made.

Rapper Snoop Dogg (L) and a ‘hologram’ of the late rapper Tupac Shakur perform onstage during day three of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.

Christopher Polk | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

But, she added, as real-time render speeds keep getting faster: “Benny and Bjorn could be at home in a chair linked to their avatar and keep them updated to chat with the audience about yesterday’s football score.” to speak in the evening. That will come.”

Next Steps

Consultant Sarah Cox said the type of processing and motion capture technology used by Voyage is still prohibitively expensive for most productions, but believes it is a “brand new format that will be replicated again and again”. especially in places like Las Vegas.

“An immersive venue could host multiple shows. And then the cost goes down because you have the technology stack and the venue and all the money goes into creating the avatar and the virtual experience and optimizing the programming.”

Many will be skeptical about digital avatar-based gigs, especially if they are wary of the general trend towards metaverse-based virtual experiences.

Björn Ulvaeus himself previously told CNBC he has concerns about the technology’s misuse to create nefarious “deep fakes” that “will become indistinguishable from reality in the future.”

There is also the question of finding suitable artists for shows. ABBA is a rare band as a band with a huge hit catalogue, a multi-generational global fan base and a whole host of members who are on board the show – but haven’t toured together in 40 years.

ABBA avatars perform their song The Visitors in London in 1981, 2022.

Johan Persson | ABBA journey

“You can bring artists back onto the stage posthumously, ethically you can see that or not,” said Gisla. “If ABBA takes part, I can say that this is an ABBA concert. ABBA made the decisions, chose what to wear, chose their set list, ABBA made this show.”

For an artist like Elvis, with an extensive visual and audio archive, an exact replica could be made, but without the input that makes this show so tangible, she said.

For Cox, live shows that offer a “shared experience,” like ABBA Voyage, are more attractive than headset-based virtual experiences, although there will certainly be more of them in the future.

And both AR and VR are spreading across the worlds of gaming, events, sports, theater and beyond.

Experiments with digital avatars included musician Travis Scott, who featured a song in the hugely popular game Fortnite in 2020, with his avatar hovering over players still moving in the game’s world. It has reported 45.8 million viewers across five shows. Lil Nas X appeared in the game Roblox in the same year.

A 15 year old plays Fortnite and Travis Scott Present: Astronomical on April 23, 2020 in Los Angeles, USA.

Frazer Harrison | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Jo Twist, chief executive of trade association UK Interactive Entertainment, said she sees growing opportunities at the intersection of gaming, music and entertainment experiences.

“While these types of experiences have until now been largely reserved for the greatest artists, we believe that the growth of both the number of people playing and the online game worlds that enable user-generated content could open up games to all types of artists, which allows them to successfully tap into its massive player base to raise their profile,” she said.

Giulia De Paoli, Founder and CEO of show design and AR studio Ombra, has worked on projects bringing ‘augmented reality’ – which includes AR and VR – to live sports.

“AR has allowed us to create a full show for broadcast events that would be impossible with traditional projection and LED setups, like creating huge 10-meter flying numbers and arena flames,” she said.

“We see this evolving into an immersive experience that people watch live and, as the word suggests, augment the reality around us, play, interact and see impossible things happen.”

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