Thanks to Metaverse, I attended a concert by an artist who died in the 90s

This Friday, December 16, 2022, for a long time, Biggie Smalls was the only artist on stage. She was the center of attention in her red velvet suit. He then began rapping the lyrics to his track “Mo Money Mo Problems,” shaking his orange sneakers to the beat and receiving pre-recorded applause from the audience.

I understand your understanding when you read these lines. Indeed, Biggie Smalls died in 1997. He was shot dead when he was only 24 years old, leaving behind an extraordinary cultural and musical legacy. Even today, he is considered one of the greatest rappers of all time. Biggie Smalls or The Notorious Big – Christopher Wallace, his real name – was in great form this Friday, December 16, 2022: his avatar on Meta’s metaverse platform Horizon Worlds created a show by singing and dancing to the beat of the music.

Biggie Smalls’ hyper-realistic avatar isn’t just an impressive technical feat. It’s also an important test that provides some answers to questions we’ll soon have to answer if metaverse platforms become popular: are people willing to pay to see an avatar of a dead artist on stage? Is this activity ethical?

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Biggie Smalls isn’t the first dead artist to be brought back to life through technology. Holograms have long been a controversial but popular way to bring deceased musicians back from the dead: Buddy Holly, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse have all been holographed at posthumous concerts. One of the most notable shows of this genre is undoubtedly the performance of Tupac Shakur. The rival of Biggie Smalls, who died in 1996, “came out” on stage at Coachella in 2012.

However, holograms are inherently limited. They force the audience to sit at a certain angle to have the illusion of seeing the artist perform on stage in 3D. Metaverse allows viewers to observe and even interact with a more realistic avatar. That’s what the team behind the Biggie Smalls concert hopes to deliver in the near future.

What stands out about this play by The Notorious Big is its realism. His body movements, gestures and facial expressions were surprisingly realistic.

There were still a few hiccups reminding viewers that Biggie Smalls is just an avatar. During duets, on stage, with rappers in the flesh, The Notorious Big seemed beyond his translators. When other rappers sang along to his lyrics, Biggie Smalls sometimes stepped out of the center circle, not responding to his colleagues as a live human performer.

Biggie Smalls’ avatar looked more “natural” off-screen, in pre-recorded digital footage of him walking around Brooklyn in the ’90s. His movements did not look artificial, his clothes were wrinkled, his head moved and his hands moved. so it was hard to tell if this person was actually a digital creation.

According to visual effects director Remington Scott, who was responsible for creating the Biggie Smalls avatar, it took years to develop the technology behind this visual feat. Remington Scott is the creator of Hyperreal, the studio behind the motion capture of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. (An actor was used for the latter — Andy Serkis — but the Biggie Smalls avatar used the same techniques.) “When we used this technology in feature films, it took six months and cost a million dollars,” he said. “Now we can do it in six weeks and at a lower cost.”

Introducing The Notorious Big to a new generation

Remington Scott says the team collected dozens of hours of footage from home videos and family photos to help create Biggie Smalls’ avatar. This reference image was used to incorporate small details into the avatar, such as the corners of the rapper’s eyes or the wrinkling of his skin when making certain facial expressions.

The team created a database of “micro-expression reference materials”, analyzed “pore-level resolution imaging” and tracked the elasticity of the lower layers of the skin to understand how the skin of the artist’s face moved. These small changes in facial expression were key to creating the most realistic avatar possible.

All this research paid off. His mother, Voletta Wallace, said, “I observed the avatar during construction… and it feels very real to me. I see my son’s unique characteristics in those details.” And to add: “The produced avatar is what I was hoping for”. Remington Scott says that when the team presented Biggie Smalls’ avatar to his mother, she said, “That’s my Christopher.”

“We could feel the emotions running high among the people in the room,” recalls Hyperreal’s founder. “At that time, we realized that we exceeded all our expectations in terms of technical achievements, as we entered the field of simulation of real emotions.”

The choice of Biggie Smalls for a concert in VR was made in part because the star had never performed live. “[De son vivant]”Biggie released two albums and never toured,” says Elliot Osagie, founder of Willingie, a digital media company that collaborated on the event. This virtual performance gave fans the opportunity to finally see their idol live and introduced this legendary rapper to a new generation.


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Voletta Wallace performs here. The latter is the executor of his son’s estate (which is estimated to be worth about $160 million). While this was an emotionally charged project, it certainly also represented a business opportunity: Remington Scott clarified that Voletta Wallace and his advisors were “looking for opportunities to bring Biggie Smalls back to reconnect with his fans and build a new base. . of worshippers”. Notorious Big’s peers are only aging members of Gen X. By placing Biggie Smalls in the metaverse in an arena dominated by younger generations, they hope to expand his audience. Voletta Wallace confirms: “I want more concerts, his music videos, commercials I’m looking at reels, animations, movies, and other possibilities in the metaverse,” he said.

Voletta Wallace, Hyperreal, Willingie and Meta declined to disclose the amounts spent on creating the Biggie Smalls avatar and on Meta’s virtual reality-only concert. In its response, the Mark Zuckerberg-led company insisted that what happened in Horizon Worlds, the company’s flagship metaverse platform, took place in virtual reality, not the metaverse, without further explaining the difference between the two. .

And Remington Scott says ownership is what sets his company’s avatars apart from traditional avatars. With other avatars, “actors and performers have no further rights,” he explains. “Our model is the opposite. We create digital identities for talent and then move on.” In the case of Biggie Smalls, his heirs were fully involved in the creation of his digital twin.

But how can you be sure that the artist has a say in what can or cannot be reproduced? “It’s the million dollar question, or rather the billion dollar question,” says Theo Tzanidis, senior lecturer in digital marketing at the University of the West of Scotland. He talked about the music industry’s use of holograms and the metaverse.

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Currently, most celebrities and artists do not include clauses in their contracts or wills about how they want their images to be used in the metaverse or AI. Theo Tzanidis suggests that he would not be surprised if this practice were to become democratized in the near future.

For Elliot Osagie, it’s important to make sure the avatar stays true to the artist’s era and doesn’t do anything that person couldn’t design. As an example, he points to an upcoming metaverse project about the jazz legend: “Miles Davis had a career that spanned decades. If you want to tell a story about his music, that’s great. But if you want to bring his avatar back to life, have him play cards with Drake it was impossible. For me, the real limitation is not to force an artist to do what he would not do in his lifetime.”

It might make sense. However, in a future where avatars become increasingly real, commerce thrives, and the line between the metaverse and real life blurs, with or without the consent of the intended recipients, it may be entirely possible for Miles Davis to play cards with Drake. from both.

Even the creators of the Biggie Smalls concert took creative liberties. For example, in one scene, the rapper’s avatar is shown on a balcony, which is supposed to be his apartment. The camera cuts to a portrait of former President Barack Obama kissing Biggie Smalls, an event that could not have happened because Barack Obama was elected 10 years after the singer’s death. At least twice, The Notorious Big is shown replying to messages on his smartphone, a product that was not yet available to the general public during his lifetime.

Theo Tzanidis thinks the lack of a legal basis is problematic. He goes far beyond the boundaries of traditional art, he says: “What if you could go back and ask people. [aux personnages historiques] what did they do What if you could be trained by people in your field? What if we could recreate past timelines?”

This vision is already becoming a reality: we should soon find a digital version of American golfer Jack Nicklaus on an as-yet-unnamed virtual platform. Fans will be able to interact with him and the golfer will give them tips and tell stories about his wins.

Jack Nicklaus was fully involved in the creation of his avatar. Not so with Biggie Smalls. We have no way of ensuring that her wishes match her mother’s. “When it comes to the Metaverse, there are no rules, no rules,” emphasizes Theo Tzanidis. And to add: “It should be a little.”

Elliot Osagi says last week’s concert isn’t the end of Biggie Smalls’ adventure. He and Remington Scott are considering expanding to other concerts and games, as well as hosting a Biggie Smalls concert at Coachella. Remington Scott is very pleased with this prospect. “The metaverse represents an alternate reality where Biggie still lives. I love that world,” he said. “I think a lot of fans are going to love this world.”

Article by Tanya Bashu, translated from English by Kozi Pastakia.


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