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

LONDON — Ahead of the launch of “ABBA Voyage,” the London concert performed by the iconic Swedish band’s 3D digital avatars, member Björn Ulvaeus said he hoped audiences would “feel he’s been through something he has never seen before”. “

After its debut on May 27, much of the response from domestic and international critics, fans, and industry professionals was elated.

“Outside of the team involved, no one really knew how to incorporate an avatar-based performance,” Sarah Cox, director of live event technical consultancy Neutral Human, told CNBC. “It blew my mind as a person working on real-time graphics. My jaw hit the ground. You look around and people really buy into the idea that ABBA is there.”

Demand has been high – the show’s run has been extended until November 2023 and may well go beyond that.

And the team has confirmed its intention to go around the world.

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

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

He also expects other shows to start following the same pattern.

“The technology itself isn’t new, but the way we’ve used it, the scale and the barriers we’ve removed are new. I’m sure others will follow and plan to follow,” said Gisla said.

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

“We have live musicians, so we keep our band and do seven shows five days a week. But you can ride 24 hours a day. Vegas will quickly adopt that style of entertainment and do Elvis or the Beatles.”

Money, money, money

The Voyage venue, dubbed the ABBA Arena, was built specifically for the show at a site in Stratford, east London, with its 3,000 capacity including a standing pit, tiered seating on three restricted viewless sides 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 largest permanent kinetic lighting installation in the world.

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

Dave J. Hogan | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

It was also designed for flexibility. It was built on a three-foot raised platform with no soil digging, and could be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere – or left in place and hosting another show in the future.

But emulating the Voyage model — which sees digital replicas of the four band members perform classic hits and newer numbers for 90 minutes, while interacting with each other and talking to the audience between songs — won’t. an easy task.

The show had been in the works for five years and grossed £141m ($174.9m) budget financed by global investors. It needs to pass around 3 million people through its 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 members of ABBA did five weeks of performing in motion capture suits. Hundreds of visual effects artists then worked on the show for two years, led by the London branch 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.

John Persson | ABBA Travel

A decade ago, a Coachella performance featuring an apparent Tupac Shakur hologram wowed audiences and hinted at the potential for alternate reality in live shows, with the performer’s likeness digitally recreated without using archival footage.

Although not meeting the technical definition of a hologram, which uses laser beams to construct an object with depth, the visual effects team projected a 2D image onto a tilted piece of glass, which itself even been projected onto a Mylar screen, creating a 3D effect. Shakur then “performed” two songs with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, 16 years after his death.

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

Its servers are pushed to the “absolute extreme” to render lag-free frames, Gisla said, so they jitter through certain transitions. She also acknowledged that the 10-meter high side screens are “very unforgiving” about detail and that improvements could be made.

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

Christopher Polk | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

But, she added, with increasingly faster real-time rendering speeds, “Benny and Bjorn could be sitting in a chair at home connected to their avatar, updating them to talk about the outcome of last night’s football to the public. It 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’s a “whole new format that will be replicated time and time again”, especially somewhere like Las Vegas.

“An immersive venue can accommodate multiple shows. And then the cost goes down, because you have the tech stack, the venue, and all the money goes into creating the avatar and the virtual experience and changing the programming.”

Many will remain skeptical of digital avatar-based gigs, especially if they’re wary of the general trend towards metaverse-based virtual experiences.

Bjorn Ulvaeus himself has previously told CNBC that he is concerned about the misuse of technology to create harmful “deep fakes” that will be “indistinguishable from reality in the future”.

There is also the question of finding suitable artists for the shows. ABBA is a rare proposition as a group with a large catalog of hits, a multi-generational global fanbase, and a full cast of members who compete on the show – but haven’t toured together in 40 years.

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

John Persson | ABBA Travel

“Posthumously, you can put artists back on stage, ethically, you may or may not have an opinion on that,” Gisla said. “The fact that ABBA is in this, I can say it’s 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, you can create an accurate replica, but without the input that makes this show so tangible, she said.

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

And augmented reality and virtual reality are spreading into the worlds of gaming, events, sports, theater and beyond.

Digital avatar experiences included musician Travis Scott premiering a song in the wildly popular game Fortnite in 2020, with his avatar threatening players still moving around the game world. It drew 45.8 million viewers on five shows. Lil Nas X played the same year in the Roblox game.

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

Fraser Harrison | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Jo Twist, chief executive of trade body UK Interactive Entertainment, said she sees growing opportunities in the intersections between games, music and entertainment experiences.

“While these types of experiences have been primarily the preserve of top artists until now, we believe that the growth in both the number of people who play and the online game worlds that enable content generated by users could open up the games to all kinds of artists, allowing them to successfully tap into its massive player base to raise their profile.” she said.

Giulia De Paoli, Founder and Managing Director of Show Design and AR Studio Ombra, has worked on projects bringing “extended reality” – spanning AR and VR – to live sports.

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

“We’re seeing this turn into a complete experience that people can watch live and, as the word goes, augment the reality around us, play, interact, and see impossible things happen.”

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