Avatar show in London offers glimpse of future for live music

LONDON – Before the start of “ABBA Voyage,” a London concert made with 3D digital avatars of the iconic Swedish band, member Björn Ulvaeus said he hoped that the audience “will feel that they have gone through something they have never seen before.”

Following its launch on May 27, the reaction of many domestic and foreign critics, fans and industry workers has been positive.

“Outside of the team involved, no one really knew how to incorporate avatar-based performance,” Sarah Cox, director of live event technical consultant Neutral Human, told CNBC. “That blew me away as someone working on real-time footage. My jaw dropped. You look around and people are really buying into the idea that ABBA are there.”

Demand has been strong – the game has been extended until November 2023 and may go beyond that.

And the team has confirmed that it aims to take the show worldwide.

“Our desire is to do another ABBA Voyage, let’s say in North America, Australasia, we can do another one in Europe. We can repeat the stage and the show,” producer Svana Gisla told a meeting of the United States government committee in November.

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

It also expects other shows to start following the same model.

“Tech itself is not new but the way we used it and the scale and barriers we broke are new. I am sure that others will follow and are planning to follow,” said Gisla.

This could “actually” be the case in a place like Las Vegas, where some shows run during the day with rotating crews, he added.

“We have live musicians, so we keep our band and do seven shows five days a week. But you can go around day and night. Vegas will soon embrace this form of entertainment and do Elvis or the Beatles.”

Money, money, money

The Voyage venue, called the ABBA Arena, was built specifically for the show in Stratford, east London, with a capacity of 3,000 including a standing pit, seats attached on three sides without a restricted view, and expensive private “dance booths.” , as well as a large kit area mounted on the roof and what the makers of White Void claim is the largest ever kinetic light installation in the world.

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ABBA Arena appearance on May 26, 2022 in London, England.

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It is also designed to be flexible. It was built on a raised platform of meters without breaking the ground, and it can be taken apart and rebuilt elsewhere – or stay in place and do another show in the future.

But replicating Voyage’s model – which sees digital footage of the four band members hitting old and new numbers for 90 minutes, while also interacting and talking to the audience between songs – will be no easy task.

The show was in the works for five years and had a £141 million ($174.9 million) budget. budget supported by international investors. It aims to bring 3 million people through its doors to break through, according to Gisla, and the average ticket price is £75.

After choosing their set list and making some creative decisions, the members of ABBA spent five weeks of practice in moving the sets to take. Hundreds of visual 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 taking place in London.

Johan Person ABBA Voyage

Ten years ago, the Coachella concert featuring Tupac Shakur’s hologram wowed the audience and demonstrated the kind of authenticity that can be achieved in online shows, with the artist’s image digitally recreated without the use of archived content.

While not meeting the technical definition of a hologram, which uses laser beams to build an object in depth, the optical team projected a 2D image onto an angled piece of glass, which itself projected onto a Mylar screen, creating a 3D effect. Shakur then “sang” two songs with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, 16 years after his death.

The Voyage team has been tight-lipped about how their display works, but has previously confirmed that it’s not a laser-based hologram either. It includes 65-million pixel screens that give the impression of the band performing life-size on stage in 3D in real time, with traditional-style concert screens showing close-ups and different views around.

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Its servers are being pushed to “absolute extremes” to provide images without lag, Gisla said, so they are shaking through some changes. He also admitted that the 10-meter high side screen is “unforgiving” in terms of detail and that there are improvements that can be made.

Rapper Snoop Dogg (L) and a “hologram” of late rapper Tupac Shakur perform on stage during day three of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.

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But, he added, with the real time that gives the momentum, “Benny and Bjorn can be sitting in the chair at home connected to their avatar, updating them to talk about the results of the final ball to the audience. That will come.”

The following steps

Consultant Sarah Cox said the type of processing and motion capture technology used by Voyage is still too expensive for many productions, but she believes it’s a “brand-new format that’s repeated over and over again,” especially somewhere like Las Vegas.

“The immersive environment can receive many signals. And then the cost comes down, because you have the technology stack, the space, and all the money that goes into creating an avatar and a real experience and developing a program.”

Many will remain skeptical about digital avatar-based gigs, especially if they’re wary of the usual approach to metaverse-based virtual experiences.

Bjorn Ulvaeus himself once told CNBC that he is concerned about the misuse of technology to create nefarious “deep fakes” that will be “indistinguishable from the real thing going forward.”

There is also the question of finding the right artists for the shows. ABBA is a rare word as a band with a huge catalog of hits, a huge international fanbase, and a full set of members who are on board with the show – but haven’t toured together for 40 years.

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

Johan Person ABBA Voyage

“Afterwards you can bring the artists back on stage, ethically you may or may not have an opinion on that,” said Gisla. “Having ABBA take part in this I can say that this is an ABBA concert. ABBA made the decisions, they chose what to wear, they chose their names, ABBA made this show.”

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For an artist like Elvis who has a visual archive and a large radio station you can create an exact replica, but without the input that makes the show feel tangible, he said.

For Cox, live shows that offer a “shared experience” like ABBA Voyage hold a bigger appeal than headset-based virtual experiences, although there will be more of those available in the future.

And both AR and VR are spreading in the worlds of sports, events, sports, theater and more.

Digital avatar experiments included the singer Travis Scott who started a song inside the popular game Fortnite in 2020, with his avatar coming over the players who were still walking around in the world of the game. It got 45 million viewers in five. Lil Nas X spent one year in the game Roblox.

A 15-year-old boy plays Fortnite with Travis Scott Present: Astronomical on April 23, 2020, in Los Angeles, United States.

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Jo Twist, chief executive of trade organization UK Interactive Entertainment, said he sees growing opportunities in the channels between games, music and entertainment events.

“Although events of this type have been mainly reserved for big players so far, we believe that the growth in the number of people who play, and the online world of games that enable user creation, can open the games to all types of players. , allowing them to successfully enter their larger players to raise their status.” she said.

Giulia De Paoli, founder and general manager of the design and AR studio Ombra, has worked on projects that bring “augmented reality” – which takes AR and VR – to live games.

“AR allowed us to create a full show of broadcast events that would not be possible with traditional methods and LED setups, such as creating giant 10-meter figures flying with flames around the stadium,” he said.

“We see this growing into a full experience for people to watch live and, as the word goes, augment the reality around us, play games, interact and see the impossible happen.”


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