As part of Open Culture Tech’s Avatar Series, we delve into the unique concept of Aespa. Aespa is a South Korean girl group that has managed to carve a unique niche for themselves by blending the boundaries between reality and the digital realm. We will look at their innovative use of technology and storytelling, but we will also look at ways to apply these technologies yourself.
Aespa made their debut in November 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the single “Black Mamba”. It is a catchy K-pop track that combines elements of pop, hip-hop, and electronic dance music. One of the most striking aspects of Aespa’s debut was the addition of a storyline that used digital avatars. The idol group consists of four human members – Karina, Giselle, Winter, and Ningning – who are accompanied by digital counterparts known as “æ”. There is æ-Karina, æ-Giselle, æ-Winter, and æ-Ningning, and they all live in a parallel virtual world called “æ-planet”.
Aespa was introduced to the world as a group of hybrid action figures in a sci-fi story that was set in both the physical and virtual world. Aespa and their digital counterparts had to fight against Black Mamba, a typical villain who wanted to destroy the virtual and physical world. The audience could follow the story in a three-part series on YouTube and supporting content appeared on various social media channels for months.
Fast forward to 2023, and you hardly see any avatars on Aespa's online channels anymore. The storyline about action heroes has been exchanged for a staged storyline about 4 close friends who share a lot of backstage footage.
Still, with Aespa, technology is never far away.
Even though Aespa’s social media channels no longer show avatars, they are still prominently present at the live shows. Last summer, Joost de Boo, member of the Open Culture Tech team, was in Japan to see Aespa live at the Tokyo Dome, together with 60.000 excited Japanese fans. “Before the show, while everyone was looking for their seats, the Black Mamba avatar video series was broadcasted on a huge screen”, Joost recalls. “It really set the stage and took the audience into the world of Aespa. But not only that. It was also a natural build-up towards the start of the show where the 4 members first entered the stage as dancing avatars, after which they were followed by the human versions.”
Joost found the live show at the Tokyo Dome was both impressive and questionable. “There is a certain aesthetic and ideal of physical beauty that is being pursued by Aespa – and almost any other idol band I know – and I wonder if that is something we should promote”. Over the years, more and more (ex) members of K-pop groups have spoken out about the dark side of K-pop culture; including sexism, abuse and mental health stigmas. So we will get back to the subject of stereotyping and avatars in another article. “But without ignoring these concerns, the technology used in the Aespa show is something we can and should definitely learn from.”
To be fair, projecting a video on stage doesn’t sound very revolutionary. Still, combining a projection on stage with a storyline on social media and YouTube does not happen very often. Furthermore, this was not the only appearance of the avatars on stage. After the first 20 minutes of the show, a large screen was wheeled onto the stage. What happened next can be seen in the videos below.
The rest of the show followed the same structure as the chronological content on YouTube and social media: the avatars disappeared and a group of human friends remained.
What have we seen on stage, and what can we learn from it? First the Black Mamba storyline. It is important to note that Aespa is created and owned by SM Entertainment, a South Korean multinational entertainment agency that was one of the leading forces behind the global popularization of South Korean popular culture in the 1990s. SM Entertainment is active throughout the entire entertainment industry and owns and operates record labels, talent agencies, production companies, concert production companies, music publishing houses, design agencies, and investment groups.
So what we have seen is a multimillion euro cross-media production where dozens of talented designers, artists and developers have worked together. In order to create Aespa’s live show, SM Entertainment worked together with (among others) 37th Degree and Giantstep, two international award-winning agencies: from creating anime characters, modeling 3D avatars and designing merchandise to story writing, directing and filming.
But besides the impressive high-budget content production, the most innovative part is not the storyline or avatars itself, but the way these characters appeared on stage after about 20 minutes. According to LG, this is the first time ever that 12 brand new “Transparent OLED” screens are combined into 1 large hologram screen on a stage. A new technology that we can expect to become much more common in the coming years. You can check out this link if you want to know more about these screens or read our previous article about cheap alternatives.
To wrap up. As an artist in the Netherlands you probably don't have the budgets of SM Entertainment. Nevertheless, it is not impossible to make up a storyline or to invent an alter ego – if you want to. It is also not impossible to translate that story into audiovisual content such as (moving) images. Maybe generative AI can help you there? But the most exciting thing is this: soon it will also be possible to translate your story into 3D with our very own Open Culture Tech “Avatar tool”. Last week we tested our first prototype live on stage and the results are more than promising.