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The future of live events: How AR and VR are shaping the industry

The emergence of AR, VR and Next Generation Audio technologies has raised some intriguing questions about the future nature of live music events. But which of them really has the potential to go the distance, wonders David Davies..?

“Got LIVE If You Want It!’ declared The Rolling Stones on their debut live album from 1966. Back then a live show was a relatively straightforward proposition – albeit one fraught with potential difficulties thanks to the relatively primitive audio systems of the day. Over the next few decades PAs improved exponentially, while at the same time light shows, lasers, props and increasingly outlandish conceptual notions all added considerably to the notion of what a pop/rock concert could contain.

But given the discussion currently taking place around several new or emerging technologies, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are now on the eve of something approaching the reinvention of the gig-going experience. Broadly speaking, these technologies can be divided into two groups – those pertaining to the in-venue experience, and those related to the engagement of fans around gig times or those who aren’t attending at all but still wish to join in the excitement.

It is the first group that concerns us here, and within that it is arguably immersive audio, VR/AR and wearable technologies about which there is presently the greatest buzz. All are still evolving, and as such it is not easy to forecast their long-term potential – not least with regards to monetisation by event organisers and vendors. If they are to become fundamental elements of live events in a widespread way, sustainable business models will need to be established. But what can be assessed more meaningfully at this point is the creative contribution that some of these technologies might make to the overall experience of live music in the years to come.

Prepare for total immersion

The extent to which immersive audio technologies have diversified in recent years can be ascertained by the fact that there is now a relevant catch-all term: Next Generation Audio (NGA). But although their aims and implementations vary considerably, these technologies share the objective of making the audio experience more all-encompassing, chiefly by adding extra speakers in order to achieve a more rounded, spatially-aware sound.

Those with longer memories will be aware that the immersive audio concept is hardly new – the likes of Pink Floyd were experimenting with quadrophonic sound as far back as the late 1960s. Since then 5.1, 9.1 and assorted other configurations have brought surround audio closer to being a default option, but Bryan Grant from Britannia Row – the legendary touring sound company originally founded by the Floyd back in the mid 1970s – suggests that it’s time may have finally arrived.

“I certainly hope that there is a future for immersive [sound] because for too long audio has often been relegated to being the concert equivalent of plumbing – it’s taken for granted that it’s there and works effectively,” he says. “There has been a lot of attention given to lighting, videos, costumes, dancing girls and so on, but on the audio side I think a kind of complacency has been allowed to exist.”

Brit Row has certainly been doing its bit here, having recently utilised the L-Acoustics L-ISA system, which enables the creation of immersive audio environments through the combination of the bespoke L-ISA processor and L-Acoustics loudspeakers and amplified controllers – for Angus & Julia Stone and the Classic BRIT Awards, both of which took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall. But there are plenty of other technologies competing for market space, from the much-publicised Dolby Atmos to the fast-rising likes of Astro Spatial Audio, founded and led by Bjorn Van Munster. The ASA solution has a brand-agnostic approach to speakers and amplifiers, but revolves around the principles of wave field synthesis and the specially-developed SARA II Premium Rendering Engine.

“We believe that it is no longer a question of whether spatial audio technologies are going to have a big impact on the live events industry; it’s a matter of how quickly the industry recognises [their importance],” says Van Munster.

Without a doubt the high-profile credits are starting to mount up. In the last few months alone, ASA technology has helped to realise an ambitious, effects-laden new production of The Who’s Tommy at the Denver Centre for the Performing Arts, as well as an event with JUR in Amsterdam, at which ASA helped to localise sound relative to performers’ positions. With events such as these, “audio allows you to give cues, directions, create emotional responses, and build a deeper layer into a show. It affects the audience in a deeper way,” explains Van Munster, who believes that ASA’s ability to work with different brands means that it will become an attractive option for festivals on account of their fast-turnaround requirements.

Of course, there are cost and time management implications – from the hire or install of additional speakers to extra labour to rig them, as well as the training or pure experimentation time that may be required for engineers to fully get to grips with immersive audio and its numerous creative opportunities (as Van Munster acknowledges, sound professionals do need to evolve “a fresh approach to building up your mix and your stems”).

But with the number of live events remaining significant, and the need to maintain consumer interest amid controversy over ticket prices, these may increasingly seem like manageable concerns in order to add – quite literally – another dimension to the live music experience.

In fact, Van Munster believes that “in the very near-future the use of technologies such as enhanced localisation, multi-channel immersive audio and dynamic interactive room acoustics will be expected by audiences, even if they don’t understand the technicalities. The real competition will be in how effectively the technology is used.”

Enhancing ‘reality’

Elsewhere there are moves afoot to further enhance the visual enjoyment of concerts. The advent of 4K/UHD screen technology is already in the process of making those large-scale visuals even more arresting – both for in-person spectators and those enjoying performances via broadcast platforms – but now there is increasing clamour around the transformative potential of Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and Mixed Reality (MR).

For in-person gig attendance, AR seems particularly exciting, with the opportunity for fans to experience visual effects through using their smartphones at designated times. There have been a number of high-profile examples recently, of which a recent show by NYC band Starset – in which a bespoke app provided fans with a countdown to the start of an AR experience that centred around a huge virtual spaceship entering the venue and landing on the stage – is one of the most striking.

LiveLike has rapidly established a niche in providing VR, AR and MR experiences to fans via any mobile platform. To date it has focused its efforts on the sports market, with its current involvement with broadcasters who acquired the rights for the VR World Cup feeds-related streaming project set to bring the company its highest profile to date. But VP of sales EMEA Samuel Westberg believes these kind of technologies can, and will, transfer to the live music and entertainment spaces in a major way.

“It’s such a natural transition of our experience to concerts and other entertainment,” he says. “In particular, these technologies will really help to open up access to shows like never before, in addition to ‘regular’ production, which I still believe is a great way of attending the event.” At shows, AR-based solutions will allow fans to experience all manner of visuals effects and additional content; for those located remotely, VR promises a type of immersive experience that is “not remotely comparable to viewing via VOD services, which is ultimately just more conventional content.”

The model for live events is certainly different to that for live sports, with promoters, venue operators, artists and agents all likely to be wanting input. But LiveLike has already conducted several significant private trials at music-related events, and Westberg believes that “it is only a matter of time before [the relevant business models mature] as there are so many opportunities to create incredible fan experiences.”

In truth, we have only begun to scratch the surface here. There is also much excitement around wearable technologies following eye-catching trials by the likes of Coldplay, who used wearables in combination to create an ocean of light during shows on their 2016 tour. There are suggestions, too, that drone technology could play an increasing role at events, for example to deliver instant high-quality selfies. Simultaneously, more carefully targeted advertising technologies will allow event organisers, and the brands that support them, to establish more meaningful and lucrative connections with their patrons. All of which reliance on mobile technologies may mean there is greater clamour than ever for ‘phone free zones’ – which could in turn become marketable elements of the gig-going experience!

Ultimately, it will be economics and returns on investment that determine which of these technologies achieve long-term traction. Fortunately, the solid base on which the live events industry is founded isn’t in any doubt, as Bryan Grant observes: “People rarely just go to see a headliner for a few hours. It’s about the whole social experience. We are a gregarious species and we need to find reasons to get together. The genres of the acts will change, and so will the technologies involved, but I don’t see that basic human need going away.”