The L.A. Philharmonic Goes Virtual, With Oculus’s Help

Three very familiar minutes of Beethoven, performed in a wholly new way.

At this point in time, it’s not a rash prediction to say that virtual reality is poised to transform the world of gaming. It’s also proving to be alluring to movie makers.

But the new medium also offers intriguing possibilities for artistry of other sorts, including some that aren’t necessarily all that obvious. Or at least I’d never considered what it might do for classical music–until I strapped on a Samsung Gear VR headset and experienced a VR version of the L.A. Philharmonic performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

To be exact, what I heard and saw was just the first three minutes of one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of music. For the L.A. Phil, it’s an experiment–and an attempt to get its music in front of technology enthusiasts who might not otherwise gravitate towards it. Starting on September 11, a mobile tour of Los Angeles called VAN Beethoven will let people experience the VR clip, which will also be available in downloadable form for owners of Gear VR and Oculus’s Dev Kit headset. (The consumer version of Oculus’s Rift is scheduled to arrive in the first quarter of next year, but the smartphone-powered Gear VR is already using Oculus technology.)

Conductor Dudamel with Secret Location’s Pietro Gagliano, and a green screen

VAN Beethoven will bring the L.A. Philharmonic to the people, a move inspired by its musical director, Gustavo Dudamel. “The thing that Gustavo is about is just making sure that music is available to the community,” says Amy Seidenwurm, director of digital initiatives for the orchestra. “He says that music is a universal right, and he really lives that.” As a nice side effect, it will allow lots of Angelenos to try out VR–a technology which, for all the buzz it’s generating, is still something that few folks have seen for themselves.

Seeing (and Hearing) is Believing

As always with VR, trying to describe it in words conveys none of the effect of actually experiencing it. But let’s go through the motions. The VR mini-movie features Dudamel conducting at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. You see it all in 3-D, with your point of view shifting over time: right behind Dudamel, above the orchestra, extreme closeups of particular musicians. The view spans 360 degrees, so you can spin around and check out the hall where the Philharmonic is playing in solitude.

In a computer-generated enhancement that reminded me of Walt Disney’s Fantasia–like this project, a blend of timeless music and cutting-edge technology–billowing streams of colorful ribbon-like shapes float above the orchestra, evoking the motif that Beethoven had in mind, according to legend. “It’s about fate and destiny and the war between good and evil,” says Seidenwurm. “We very roughly tried to tell that story in the animation.”

The L.A. Phil produced its VR film in collaboration with Secret Location, a Toronto-based digital agency. “They’re the VR experts that we leaned on really heavily to make sure this was up to snuff,” Seidenwurm says. Technology-wise, the shoot used multiple GoPro cameras with wide-angle lenses, plus dozens of microphones used to capture uncannily realistic binaural sound. The final experience is stitched together from around a dozen takes.

Setting up technology at the Walt Disney Concert Hall

One catch of VR: It’s not an entirely kid-friendly technology, at least in its present form. Following Oculus’s guidelines, the VAN Beethoven VR experience will require parental sign-off for those under 18, and it won’t be open to kids under 13 at all. “Oculus hasn’t tested this on developing eyes, and we don’t want to push anything there,” says Seidenwurm.

Will the L.A. Phil follow up this brief production with even more ambitious VR musical extravaganzas? That’s yet to be decided, and turning reality into virtual reality isn’t exactly an affordable cakewalk, especially at this early stage of the medium’s life. (The orchestra paid for the project with a grant.) But Seidenwurm says that Oculus, though not deeply involved in this effort, is enthusiastic about the whole concept: “They’re excited about people using their technology for something a little different–and we’re using their powers for good.”

Here’s the Phil’s own making-of video:

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

More

Video