ABBA’s successful avatar show in London offers a glimpse at a daring new direction for live music

Technology

LONDON — Before the launch 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 that they’ve gone through something that they’ve never seen before.”

Following its May 27 debut, much of the reaction from domestic and international critics, fans and industry professionals has been rapturous.

“Other than the team involved, no one really knew how they would integrate an avatar-based performance,” Sarah Cox, director of live event technical consultancy Neutral Human, told CNBC. “That blew me away as someone working on real-time graphics. My jaw hit the floor. You look around and people are really buying into the idea that ABBA are there.”

Demand has been strong — the show’s run has been extended to November 2023 and could well go beyond that.

And the team has confirmed it aims to take the show around the world.

“Our ambition is to do another ABBA Voyage, let’s 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 U.K. government committee session in November.

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

“The tech itself isn’t new but the way in which we’ve used it and scale and barriers we’ve broken down are new. I’m sure others will follow and are planning to follow,” Gisla said.

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

“We have live musicians, so we keep our band and do seven shows over five days a week. But you could roll round the clock. Vegas will quickly adopt this style of entertainment and do Elvis or the Beatles.”

Money, money, money

Voyage’s venue, dubbed the ABBA Arena, was built specifically for the show on a site in Stratford in east London, with its 3,000 capacity comprising a standing pit, tiered seats along three sides with no restricted view, and higher-priced private “dance booths, as well as space for the extensive kit positioned in the roof and what creators 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 constructed on a one meter raised platform without breaking ground, and could be disassembled and reconstructed elsewhere — or stay in place and host another show in future.

But emulating Voyage’s model — which sees digital replicas of the four band members perform classic hits and newer numbers for 90 minutes, while also interacting with each other and speaking 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 funded by global investors. It needs to get 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 ABBA members did five weeks of performance 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.
Johan Persson | ABBA Voyage

A decade ago, a Coachella performance featuring an apparent hologram of Tupac Shakur impressed audiences and hinted at alternative reality’s potential in live shows, with the artist’s likeness digitally recreated without using archive footage.

While 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 an angled piece of glass, which was itself 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 previously confirmed it is not a laser-based hologram either. It involves 65-million pixel screens which 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 on either side.

Its servers are being pushed to the “absolute extreme” to render the images without lag, Gisla said, such that they are shaking through some transitions. She also acknowledged that the 10-meter high side screens are “very unforgiving” on detail and there are improvements that could be made.

Rapper Snoop Dogg (L) and a “hologram” of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur perform on stage on the third day of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.
Christopher Polk | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

But, she added, with real-time render speeds becoming quicker, “Benny and Bjorn could be sitting in a chair at home connected to their avatar, updating them to talk about last night’s football result to the audience. That will come.”

Next steps

Consultant Sarah Cox said the kind 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 time and time again,” particularly somewhere like Las Vegas.

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

Many will remain skeptical of digital avatar-based gigs, particularly if they are wary of the general trend toward metaverse-based virtual experiences.

Bjorn Ulvaeus himself previously told CNBC he has concerns about the misuse of the technology to create nefarious “deep fakes” which will be “indistinguishable from the real thing going forward.”

There is also the question of finding suitable artists for shows. ABBA is a rare proposition as a band with a large catalogue of hits, a multi-generational worldwide fanbase, and a full set of members who are on-board with the show — but who have not toured together for 40 years.

ABBA avatars perform their 1981 song The Visitors in London, 2022.
Johan Persson | ABBA Voyage

“Posthumously you can put artists back on stage, ethically you may or may not have a view on that,” said Gisla. “Having ABBA partake in this is I can say 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 you could create an accurate replica, but without the input that makes this show feel so tangible, she said.

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

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

Digital avatar experiments have included musician Travis Scott premiering a song within the wildly popular game Fortnite in 2020, with his avatar looming over players who were still moving around within the world of the game. It got a reported 45.8 million viewers across five shows. Lil Nas X performed the same year in the game Roblox.

A 15 year-old plays Fortnite and Travis Scott Present: Astronomical on April 23, 2020, in Los Angeles, United States.
Frazer Harrison | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

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

“While these kind of experiences have mostly been the preserve of the biggest artists so far, we believe that growth in both the number of people who play, and online game worlds that enable user generated content, could open games up to all kinds of performers, allowing them to successfully tap into its enormous player base to raise their profile.” she said.

Giulia De Paoli, founder and general manager of show design and AR studio Ombra, has worked on projects bringing “extended reality” — spanning AR and VR — to live sports.

“AR has permitted 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 flames around the arena,” she said.

“We see this developing into a full experience for people to watch live and, as the word says, augmenting the reality around us, gamifying, interacting and seeing impossible things happen.”

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