During lockdown and the pandemic there was a lot of virtual music gigs of various sorts but one that didn’t get going until we started to come out of lockdown was the ABBA Voyage show. This brings the Swedish band back together, on stage, but as digital representations, as avatars or ABBAtars as they refer to them. We took a trip to see the show in London this June. I am not a huge fan, but they do catchy tunes from my childhood that everyone, including me, knows the words to, and I was interested in the tech. A slight downside was that its pretty certain the train there and back, a post show meal, or the event itself exposed us both Covid, and flattened us for a few weeks. Was it worth that price? Answers on a postcard…
The team behind the ABBA Voyage have spent years creating the experience and a key part of that was to try to accurately model, then de-age, the four members of the band. An avatar is a complex fusion of 3d modelling and animation, whether as a live puppet in a video game, virtual world or metaverse application or as a basis for creating and rendering a 3d movie. By recording the movements and mannerisms of the actual band members the avatars edge slightly closer to reality. Way to capture movement and expression used to be very expensive high-end applications, but new approaches using more basic equipment such as smartphones are always turning up. This show though clearly used the Hollywood grade kit and processes.
The trailer video for the show can be found here https://youtu.be/nlGC_1k1Bgs
Live on stage
The venue has been purpose built for this specific show and aims to make it feel like a live experience. ABBA appear on stage blended with real lighting and other effects that add to the illusion. In fact, I think most people if they did not know this was a digitally rendered event might look at the stage and be convinced the people were real. This is further added to by the presence of an actual live band on the same stage. It is of course a clever optical illusion and a virtual reality that fools the senses because 80% of it is all real. The nightclub like atmosphere and the all-around light shows are very much more immersive than a cinema show might be. Often the avatars are projected onto other screens, sometimes just mimicking the sort of concert camera coverage for close ups, but other times it goes completely ethereal as you are catapulted into a eye popping pop video. These are all great changes in tempo and approach. The only problem is that in the giant close ups, the uncanny valley occurs, where our brains (to varying degrees) spot things as being not quite real. That is not a reason to not enjoy the show, they are not hoodwinking anyone, this is a Disney style experience to be enjoyed rather than an actual concert.
Even better than the real thing?
The short answer is no, it’s not better than a real live performance. However, it is something different to a live performance living in area that might offer many different opportunities for creative experiences. Just after recovering from Covid a few weeks later, we finally got to go and see Guns N Roses live at the Tottenham stadium in London. This had been rescheduled from 2020. Now this was a proper live show, and I am sure that in their time ABBA performing to a packed stadium would have the same sort of buzz. Now I am a fan of GnR and it’s been a long time coming to get to see and hear them. I was not disappointed, Slash’s guitar skills are mind blowing and the anthems the band has created are still as good as the first time I heard them. The difference that stood out to me between ABBA and a live concert, was something I felt and thought about afterwards, was the two-way connection with the band and the audience, all together and almost in a personal 1:1 way. At ABBA there was clapping and singing along, but the biggest claps and cheers were when the live band did a solo piece almost as an interval piece.
We want to let performers know we like what they are doing, when you know they are not there we lose that connection. How we recreate or generate that emotion in the future for virtual performances will be interesting to see. This is different to when there are live performances online, in virtual worlds or eventually across the metaverse, as those performers are often there behind the avatar, playing and singing to an audience of avatars. The claps, cheers and crazy dance moves and emotes let an audience express their feelings and been seen to be doing that by the performers. A subtle difference but one that feels closer to being at a live GnR concert.