Virtual stars: How digital avatars could change concerts and touring as we know it

From Gorillaz to Michael Jackson to Abba (soon), recording artists are coming alive through virtual performances. Could advances in projection technology change the way artists perform concerts and tours?

Abba to debut new music for upcoming avatar tour project

Swedish pop superstars Abba, comprising from left Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus, vowed to never perform live again. But they will indeed reunite again as 'Abbatars,' thanks to the latest virtual performance technology. (Olle Lindeborg/TT News Agency/Associated Press)

Abba has prepped brand new music for a much-hyped reunion performance in December. It's their first in decades — cue the flashy costumes and familiar pop hits — but don't expect a traditional show.

The Swedish pop superstars will take the stage via avatars, thanks to advances in projection technology, which experts say could change the way musical acts perform concerts and tours going forward. Abba's stars have vowed not to perform live again.

"I have stood on many a taped white cross on studio floors in TV studios all around Europe, miming to the latest Abba single in my strange outfits. Those were the days... My colleagues today have to work much harder," Abba member Bjorn Ulvaeus recalled during a speech to the European Broadcasting Union in Brussels in April.

He then revealed that he and his fellow bandmates were thoroughly measured and mapped last year in preparation for an "Abba avatar tour project."

The initiative will kick off with a "global television moment," Ulvaeus said, anticipating the show will be simulcast by broadcasters worldwide. 

The Abba avatars will be modelled on how the quartet looked in 1979. (Keystone/Getty Images)

"The measurements, together with old videos and photos, makes it possible for these IT wizards to create perfect copies of Abba, version 1979. We thought we looked good that year," he quipped, dubbing the band's virtual representatives "Abbatars."

Don't call them holograms

Virtual artists have been around for a while. Back in 2006, fans of The Gorillaz were wowed when the animated quartet took the stage at the Grammy Awards and mingled seamlessly in a performance with Madonna. Since then, the technology behind virtual performers has definitely evolved. 

Gorillaz joined Madonna, at right, for a performance at the 2006 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

For one thing, they've long been called holograms, but that's actually incorrect, according to Michael Page, assistant professor at OCAD University and a researcher in the field of digital holography.

"It's a video projection. It has nothing to do with holography."

According to Page, the technology behind virtual artists is usually some form of "Pepper's ghost," the long-used special effect that employs reflections to create optical illusions. 

Today, the illusion is typically created by projecting 3D visuals onto a thin film — a technique that's making virtual figures come to life on stages across the globe, whether it's K-pop idols for concerts in Seoul, conference lecturers presenting in Europe or performances by deceased recording artists, like Tupac and Michael Jackson.

One performance, many venues

With Abba's forthcoming reunion, however, the focus is shifting to living artists actively participating in creating new virtual performances.

The technology has the potential to make the lives of touring acts much easier, says Bertrand Rivière, corporate account manager at Musion. Based in Sherbrooke, Que., Musion's Canadian team has worked with acts such as Gorillaz and German rockers Tokio Hotel.

For instance, last-minute cancellations could become a thing of the past: Virtual performers can step in for artists who fall sick or get injured, or perhaps if a band's various members find themselves in completely different locations. 

Singer Janelle Monae, left, and a virtual projection of rapper M.I.A. perform in Los Angeles in 2014. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Audi)

​"Imagine will.i.am and Fergie in Los Angeles, and [apl.de.ap and Taboo] in New York," Rivière said. 

By beaming the two missing performers to the other location, "you have two concerts of the Black Eyed Peas, in two different places."

Neweb Labs, the team behind Maya Kodes (touted as the world's first interactive, virtual pop star), offers up further possibilities.

Neweb Lab's technology centres on a performer, covered in motion sensors, who serves as a puppeteer for a digital avatar. (Kristin Falcao/CBC )

The Montreal company's technology centres on a live artist puppeteering a digital avatar through motion capture. This system could allow a performer to, for example, send a single live performance out to multiple venues, says Neweb Labs CEO Yves St-Gelais. 

"It's possible to make a world tour in one night," he said.

If a concert could be broadcast in Paris, Tokyo and New York at the same time, it could drastically reduce the gruelling pace facing artists tackling a world tour. 

Glitches in the system?

However, the world of virtual performances is not without setbacks. Both Rivière and St-Gelais noted that, at the moment, conditions have to be perfect in order for their technologies to work.

Firstly, it can be an expensive undertaking. St-Gelais estimated that it would cost upwards of $500,000 to set up and use Neweb's technology in multiple venues.

In Musion's case, its system works best indoors. Any glitches can break the illusion and daylight isn't ideal, said Rivière.

Rapper Snoop Dogg, left, performs with a virtual recreation of late rapper Tupac Shakur at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella)

And then there are the naysayers. Companies creating virtual artists continue to face criticism by some for creating new performances of those who have passed away.

"I'm not creating Frankenstein," Rivière declared, adding that when an artist dies, fans don't stop listening to his music or watching her movies. 

So while virtual performances haven't become the norm, Rivière is confident they do have a future.

"Our aim is to use this technology to provide and propose something different and as experimentable as possible."