for Cinetalk.net (Special assignment In Toronto)

Opening the first day of Canadian Music Week’s Conference, TAG Strategic’s Ted Cohen facilitated a lively discussion about how VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality such as holograms) are affecting the music lover’s experience. Cohen runs a digital consultancy and is currently focused on music and tech startups. With inside jokes and witty repartees, he led the Impact of AR/VR and MR on the Music Fan Experience panel with guests hailing from Texas, L.A. and beyond.

A Calgary transplant to Toronto, Sappho Hansen-Smythe, entertained the audience with her LED light enhanced fluffy sweater. Fitting for a discussion between tech-heads and leaders in the VR/AR movement. The bubbly singer-songwriter produced her own music video after falling in love with VR. She said the technology won her over with its haptic interface. Haptics involves any form of touch interaction, and thus allows the VR user to experience vibrations directly in the handheld controllers. Sappho’s video is available on Youtube and mixes Tilt Brush technology (a Google tool for painting in 3D space) with live action footage.

One of the leaders in VR is Oculus, which was bought by Facebook in 2014. FB Oculus’s Media Planning and Operations Lead was also on Cohen’s panel. Nate Barsetti shared info about Oculus’s current project, Venues which provides a user a 180-degree screen experience as if seated in a true music venue. The environments recreate actual venues such as New Orleans’ famous Tipitina’s. Ambisonic sound aka spatialized sound, offers multiple sound channels. The Oculus headset user can experience realistic sound due to “headtracking”. This keeps the audio in your face – quite literally. It takes into account things like sonic delay and motion, since sound waves alter through time and space, rebound against surfaces, etc.

Michael Hodson, who deals more with the 360-degree experience, feels that VR is not a technology that will eventually cannibalize any industry. Instead, it will couple with venues, promoters and artists to create a new stream. Creators want to ensure that these tech enhancements “don’t pull the fan out of the live music experience nor detract from the main business at hand”. If a venue holds 500 spectators, VR can bring the venue the revenue of 5000 viewers via an at-home experience. This creates an audience that can’t necessarily be at a physical venue. Those who may be disabled, underage, or live too far can thus take part remotely. VR is an aggregate technology, rather than an all-consuming one.

But can these technologies serve any function or are they just providing entertainment? Enter Keith Crutchfield. He is working on AR waypoint experiences. How many of us have gone to large scale outdoor events such as Coachella or even Toronto Pride, which bring millions of people out into the streets for days at a time? And how familiar is the “Where R U?” text that bounces between friends trying to locate each other in the melee? Crutchfield’s project aims to take over where text communication falls flat. The Dude, where’s my car? concept is the basis for the AR development, which Crutchfield explains as a natural progression from GPS and apps like Waze. This could help find a user’s vehicle in a crowded lot. But also, at large events with multiple performance stages all occurring simultaneously, fans might use the technology to decide if they have enough on-foot time to wade through the crowd between stages. Plotting the waypoints in real time might save them the trouble if they’d see the travel time would be 15 minutes but the performance on the other end is only 30 minutes long. It might change their itinerary in favor of a closer stage or a longer show.

Another innovation in how music fans can experience the live venue and the performance itself is through hologram concerts. A band that never wanted to reunite due to interpersonal tension, Abba, is currently working on a hologram tour. Fans may never see all four members of Abba on one stage again, but through MR enhancements, a comparable experience can be offered.

Currently, both Ronnie James Dio and Frank Zappa are on tour. P.S. both musicians are dead. With the help of Dio’s longtime partner, and Zappa’s son Ahmet, attention has been given to replicate as closely as possible the likeness and essence of these music icons. A live band with a hologram-Dio is approved by those who were close to the musician, to avoid cheapening the representation. These days, it is entirely possible to also see Roy Orbison and Maria Callas live on a stage. The possibilities herein stretch so far, we might dare call them endless.

As an aside, the Oculus Quest is coming out on the market, and it is already projected to surpass the sales of the previous model, the Oculus Rift. With improvements in frame rate (which help combat motion sickness common with older models) and no gaming rig needed, the user can just pop some batteries into their hand controllers and boom! attend their favorite band’s next event without leaving their living room!