The virtual performance by legendary pop band Abba is a disruption of the concert experience. Technology is redefining the way people will be entertained in the future.
There’s a moment when self-reflection suddenly sets in. The moment when I ask myself, “What exactly am I doing here?” And the answer is, I’m cheering for a projection, along with about 3000 other people. Ninety minutes of enthusiastic cheering for projections of light depicting four people on a stage. I even bought a poster – a picture of a projection of some people who look like they used to look 35 years ago.
Called “Abba Voyage”, this virtual show by the legendary pop group from Sweden, this has been running nightly since May in a specially built Abba Arena in London. How can that work? Theoretically, hardly at all, because real fans want to see real stars. But in practice, it works like a charm. Abba Voyage is where the journey into the future of entertainment begins.
The project took six years of development and cost about 175 million dollars – a lot of effort for a reincarnation of Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Björn and Benny. The arena has been sold out nearly every night since the show opened. With an average ticket price of 80 euros and seven shows each week, they're taking in nearly two million a month.
It is already clear that they can only use the arena until April 2023. That means the show in London won’t break even. But the arena is designed to go on the road afterwards. And it’s not just about a single production. Indeed, the Swedes have reinvented the concept of a stage show. Innovation requires investment.
“To be or not to be, that is no longer the question,” says the virtual Benny in an aside to the audience. This variation on the famous quote from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” hits the nail on the head: Maybe in the past, the audience’s biggest desire was to be close enough to the world’s biggest stars to touch them. Nowadays, their primary motivation is the event itself, the “unique experience” of the moment.
What the Swedes bring to the stage in London is a disruption of the concert experience. Hundreds of hours were spent recording the band members wearing special suits and using “proxy characters” for movement sequences. Body anatomy was recorded to create simulations of everything, down to the skin, eyes and eyelashes of the performers. All this input was reassembled using CGI (computer-generated imagery). The result is groundbreaking. You really believe you’re seeing four artists live on stage, and not just their ”abbatars.”
Abba: Pioneers of new technology
The actual technology behind it is highly developed, but it’s not magic. The musicians perform in front of a huge LED wall onto which the background is projected; both together are recorded using state-of-the-art technology and produced virtually thanks to 160 3D-motion-capture cameras and a billion computer hours of effort by Industrial Light & Magic.
By the way, Abba was already a pioneer in the use of new technologies back in the day. Musically, the group’s four members created a unique sound based on multiple overlapping harmonies sung by the two female voices, giving their pop songs an orchestral sound. In 1975 they were one of the first bands to launch a music video with their hit “Mamma Mia,” delighting fans around the world.
Technology is laying a new foundation for the future of entertainment experiences. There are now music festivals taking place on the online gaming platform “Minecraft,” and virtual concerts on “Fortnite” where Ariana Grande grows wings while her fans ride flying unicorns. The Roblox gaming platform is not only a preferred source for avatar clothing from luxury fashion labels, but also the host of Wild West-themed concerts by rapper Lil Nas-X.
Last year in March, the legendary K-pop group “BTS” gave a concert for 2.4 million paying guests who watched it online in cinemas. Virtual entertainment is becoming a huge business. According to estimates by Midia, an entertainment intelligence group, these concerts will generate four to five billion dollars in revenue in a few years.
Virtual objects, characters and shows are becoming a matter of course
But the entertainment industry will not be the only one to consistently implement this trend. Imagine the opportunities for advertisers whose messages can be disseminated everywhere at the same. What will business roadshows look like when CEOs no longer have to be there live and in person, but can be represented by perfectly produced avatars? And how might a political campaign look when politicians are able to speak entire populations at the same time, wherever they may be?
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi already gave an impressive demonstration of the possibilities during his 2014 election campaign. In order to personally mobilize 800 million Indians in just six weeks, a hologram of Modi was projected in thousands of meeting halls.
To be or not to – is that no longer the question? In any case, people’s expectations and viewing habits are being changed. Virtual objects, characters and shows are increasingly common in today’s world. Perhaps the question is not “to be or not to be,” but a matter of a different reality that virtual worlds open up for us as a showcase, a form of existence, and an interactive way to experience genuine emotions.
Ludvig Andersson, the son of Benny and one of the producers of Abba Voyage, sees the avatars as the reincarnation of his then-33-year-old father and the other band members, as chimeras of otherness, as “a combination of their existence as Abba and their existence as themselves [...], a ghost in the machine.”
The ghost in the machine meets the ghost of the spectator – and the result is a music and stage experience that leaves me wondering how real reality is. It’s a window through which I can view the world, or a window in my mind into which a world can be projected. Somewhere in between is where we are. Mamma Mia!
Cover Image: Unsplash