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October 02
2017

ISSUE

Fall 2017

VR EXPERIENCE CATCHING ON WITH ARTISTS AND AUDIENCES

By CHRIS MCGOWAN


Queen: The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience is a 360-degree immersive video with spatialized sound that evokes a “dreamlike journey through Freddie Mercury’s subconscious mind” and through “surrealistic worlds.” (Images courtesy of Queen, Google Play and Enosis

Over the last 20 years, cheap or free downloads and streaming have diminished the value and importance of commercial recorded music for many listeners. But virtual reality, with its growing technological viability and commercial promise, may change the listening equation once again, adding new levels of immersion, interaction and involvement. Live-streamed 360-degree concerts as well as the evolving new art form of interactive music VR may create significant new revenue streams for the music industry and heighten our appreciation of a favorite artist’s work. The medium may even engage us in music more deeply than back in the day when fans “immersed” in the music, cover art and liner notes of vinyl albums like Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon.

Virtual reality has come of age and titles are widely available for streaming. Most current music experiences are 360 videos that give the viewer a rotating, panoramic view of a show or setting, while full VR is interactive, with a responsive environment and real-time rendering.

The medium can be experienced in various ways. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets offer higher-end VR with sufficiently powerful PCs. And Apple’s new computers this fall will be powerful enough to run VR, which will further expand the audience. Meanwhile, viewers can experience VR inexpensively via cell phones with Samsung Gear VR (powered by Oculus) and Google’s Cardboard viewer and Daydream headset. Sony also offers a PlayStation VR headset. The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) forecasts sales of 2.5 million VR headsets in 2017 (a 79% increase over the previous year).

“It’s a new medium, so it will augment every message that people create and deliver in a new way, which happened with radio and TV. VR is an extension of all these efforts to communicate and will affect every possible angle of our lives,” comments Vangelis Lympouridis, the founder of Enosis V.R., based in Los Angeles.

Commissioned by Google Play, Enosis collaborated with the rock group Queen to create an immersive music video for the classic song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The resulting VR “experience” was made available last year for Google Cardboard, for Android and iOS. “The app was downloaded 180,000 to 200,000 times” with “close to a million” estimated views around the world, according to Lympouridis.

Prior to founding Enosis, Lympouridis oversaw VR research and productions at the MxR Studio in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “We academics have been training with all sorts of room-scale and full-body virtual reality experiences,” he says, noting that he  has nearly a decade and a half of work in the field.

“Music is a good paradigm for exploring virtual reality,” he observes, “because it has a short duration and we can’t have a comfortable long session with the current state of virtual reality. And then there is a pre-established narrative and a connection with a broad audience, so we have the creative allowance to render beautiful worlds and abstractions. We can make a great synaesthetic experience.”

For The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience,” “Queen sent all the original [musical] stems,” recalls Lympouridis. “We had access to all the individual instruments and original Freddie Mercury voice tracks.” Enosis worked with Dolby Labs on the 360 surround sound. “It was a fascinating experience remixing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in an immersive way.” The sound is spatialized as one moves one’s head, “reacting to your gaze. It is rendered in real time according to your orientation in space.” The goal was to take the audience on a “dreamlike journey through Freddie Mercury’s subconscious mind” and through a “series of surrealistic worlds.”

The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience illustrates the important role that visual effects will play in VR. The experience integrated 2D and 3D animation, motion capture and digital effects, and was created with Unity Game Engine and proprietary software “we wrote ourselves,” recalls Lympouridis. “Half the project was about technical  innovation  and the other  half about the high entertainment value we were after.” Enosis spent four months on the title, with “a team of 15 on site and another 15 contributing contractors.”

“We were very pleased and exceeded Google’s expectations,” Lympouridis says. “Queen loved it, especially Brian May, who has a passion for VR. I think we created a quantum leap in understanding what is possible in mobile VR and VR in general.”

Björk’s immersive 360 video for “Stonemilker” from her 2015 Vulnicura album. (Image courtesy of Megaforce, Sony and Björk)

Over the last two years, the Icelandic singer Björk also delved into virtual reality, participating in VR music videos for several songs (including “NotGet,” “Stonemilker,” “Quicksand” and “Mouth Mantra”) from her 2015 album Vulnicura, and launched an 18-month traveling VR exhibit, Björk Digital.

I think how VR will affect music will be more powerful than how music video changed the music experience,” comments Anthony Batt, Co-creator and Executive VP of Wevr, a VR creative studio in Venice, California. Wevr is partly headquartered in a fitting space for pushing the VR envelope: actor Dennis Hopper’s former house, an avant-garde trapezoidal structure made of corrugated steel, in which the unconventional actor kept his collection of cutting-edge modern art.

Prior to music video, Batt says, “Most music experiences were non-visual unless you were going to a live concert. But after music videos entered the pop culture, artists and directors were combining their efforts and creating stories that created narratives for culture. I think that was profound and had its effect on pop culture and society. I think VR is going to extend it because parts of it are interactive and [viewers] will be fully immersed into narratives with the music. We have to assume that will have a big effect on pop culture and art. I’m very bullish on all that’s happening and its being a real win for both the artists and their audiences.”

Reggie Watts and a green screen, working on the Waves music VR, directed by Benjamin Dickinson, and a scene from Waves. (Images courtesy of Wevr)

So far, Wevr has created such VR experiences as Future Islands’ exuberant and much acclaimed Old Friend, Run the Jewels’ Crown and Reggie Watts’s Waves. Outside of music, Wevr has worked on VR experiences with the likes of Jon Favreau (Gnomes and Goblins) and Deepak Chopra (Find Your True Self). The company runs Transport, an independent network for VR distribution, which charges $8 to subscribe for 360 video (for mobile) or $25 for both mobile and “room-scale” VR. “There are roughly 25 pieces there now and it’s growing.”

Future Islands’ acclaimed Old Friend, directed by Tyler Hurd. (Image courtesy of Wevr)

Batt feels that both creators and audiences have to get used to the new medium. “A lot of it is just sit back and get your hair blown back, but some of it will have interactivity to it. The art form itself is new to both the creator and the observer. There will be a learning curve for everybody. Movies went through the same thing when they first came out. People had to learn what they were.”

Wevr has created its VR music titles without industry support. “We’ve done all these ourselves without any record labels,” adds Batt. “The artists themselves are keen to do it, they’re interested in making their audiences happy and sharing. I think the labels are still trying to figure everything out.”

“There are definitely some significant things happening” in music VR, says Tom Szirtes, Creative Technologist at Mbryonic, a digital design studio in London. Szirtes has been working with Sony Music on “how we can take existing assets and use them in a virtual environment.” He continues, “Various apps are trying to create virtual worlds where you can interact and explore music. Various artists have created 360 videos and some fairly big deals have been struck in 360 streaming.”

Live Nation is streaming live VR concerts with NextVR. (Image courtesy of Live Nation)

One of those deals involves Live Nation (the global entertainment and concert booking giant), Citibank and NextVR, a production company based in Newport Beach, California. The three companies will produce up to 10 live VR concerts with major artists. Viewers will have front-row seats and multiple other vantage points, and be able to visit the artists backstage. Live Nation streamed its first VR concert with NextVR last December with Thievery Corporation. The streams are viewable through Daydream and Samsung Gear VR headsets, with a NextVR app.

Vimeo added support for 360-degree videos to its streaming video platform in 2017, enabling creators to upload, share and sell their immersive videos. It joined YouTube and Facebook in offering support for 360, which can be viewed with headsets (for immersion) or without them (for a limited experience on your computer or tablet).

“I can see it working,” Szirtes says about 360 concert videos. “Your audience might not be in the same city, or it might be people who don’t fancy going to concerts anymore or paying $70 or $100. It’s the lowest hanging fruit of the VR music tree.” Also, he speculates, “why not have gigs on the moon or in avolcano? You can integrate different ways for the performer to be present in a digital venue.”

In addition, multiple users, such as a group of friends, could attend a VR concert together. Szirtes comments, “I think social is going to be a really big thing and that’s something we’ll build into our product. At the moment, VR is seen as a solitary experience, but the real power of VR is to bring people together. When you think about music you think of it as a social activity. The next wave of VR is going to be social and music will play a big part in that.”

Universal Music also entered the field in October of last year with a live-streamed 360, 3D performance by Avenged Sevenfold, presented through Universal’s VRTGO platform and powered by VRLive, a Los Angeles-based VR broadcast network. Queen and Adam Lambert released VR The Champions in June on VRTGO.

Vantage.tv, based in Los Angeles, produces live 360 streams of major music festivals, and produced a ticketed 360 performance by Eric Church earlier this year. Boiler Room has begun to stream live DJ sets in VR through Daydream. It partnered with Google on the 15-minute release VR Dancefloors: Techno in Berlin. Boiler Room, based in London, is a global online music broadcasting platform that streams live music sessions around the world. About DJ VR, Szirtes asks, “Reactive environments can move and change and pulsate with the music. What will a DJ do in virtuality?”

Coldplay in a 360 concert. (Image courtesy of Vrtify)

Vrtify has amassed a large music VR library. The Palo Alto-based company is transforming existing music videos into 360 experi- ences and shooting 360 concert videos with major artists. Vrtify 360 content includes Coldplay, Sting, Florence and the Machine, Twenty One Pilots and others, with titles available through Spotify, Deezer, Pandora and Soundcloud. Vrtify has more than 5,000 hours of concerts, interviews and music videos in virtual and mixed reality, according to the company, which pays 70% of its income to the artists or music rights holders.

Duran Duran at Lollapalooza in a 360 concert. (Image courtesy of Vrtify)

Challenges for the new medium include the amount of footage that must be shot. “Imagine you’re doing a 2D animation. Imagine the same duration for VR, with the sides, backs, etc. It’s at least four to six times more content,” notes Lympouridis. In addition, “unique software designed for VR production in mind” is needed.

Lali Esposito in a 360 concert. (courtesy of Vrtify)

In terms of viewers, Lympouridis and Batt both see a need for lighter, more comfortable headsets to help accelerate the VR industry. Batt adds, “As the headsets become more comfortable and easy to use, you could find yourself kicking back and putting on the headset as away to listen to music.”

The Oculus Rift headset

The Samsung Gear VR headset

The HTC Vive headset

The VR music gold rush has not yet begun, but it’s on the horizon. About VR, Batt predicts, “Music and the way that you watch it and be a part of it will change forever. It won’t be for everybody, but it’ll certainly be an awesome way to celebrate music.”


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