DEW Explores Future of Audio for VR/AR

MARINA DEL REY, CA—“Audio is in ascendance; audio is going to be key to storytelling and experience creation,” said Philip Lelyveld during a featured presentation, “An AR Update for the Entertainment Community,” at this year’s Digital Entertainment World (DEW) conference on February 1.
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MARINA DEL REY, CA—“Audio is in ascendance; audio is going to be key to storytelling and experience creation,” said Philip Lelyveld during a featured presentation, “An AR Update for the Entertainment Community,” at this year’s Digital Entertainment World (DEW) conference on February 1.

“We can only see in front of ourselves, but we can hear all around; in the ambient sense, it grounds you in the experience,” continued Lelyveld, who runs the Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality Initiative at the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), a think tank at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Lelyveld believes that AR—where images or information are overlaid on a person’s field of view via smart glasses or a handheld device—is the smarter long-term play for creative and business opportunities, even though VR uptake is starting to ramp up.

“If you’re looking at an avatar in Augmented Reality, you want the voice to come from her mouth, you want that directional information. The technology is there to create that and experience it,” said Lelyveld. But, he also noted, “Consumers don’t buy technologies; they buy the experiences the technologies deliver.”

“How are we making money in the VR industry?” asked Michael Gold of Holojam, moderator of a panel exploring the future of VR and AR. The biggest challenge is creating a return on investment for clients, said Rich Flier of Digital Domain.

Flier’s company has been experimenting with pay-per-view, livestreaming a VR music concert in China in December 2016 that drew 100,000 viewers at $4 each. “There is untapped potential over there,” he said.

Many on the panel were recently at the Sundance Film Festival, where the New Frontier exhibition has been promoting VR as an artistic medium for years. The key to VR’s success is in understanding what will draw viewers, said Technicolor’s Marcy Jastrow: “Making something truly interesting for you to get back in the headset over and over again.”

VR reached a major milestone this year, with Pearl, a VR project from director Patrick Osborne, receiving an Oscar nomination in the Short Film (Animated) category. Although largely ignored until recently, “VR is the hottest ticket in town,” reported Julia Sourikoff from Tool of North America, with additional VR exhibits now springing up at Sundance. “So many companies are realizing there is a big movement around this.”

Sourikoff singled out Life of Us from Chris Milk’s Within (formerly VRSE) company for praise. “It was an incredible piece,” she said. “Bringing people together socially, remotely and in the same space, so you can have a shared experience—I think you’re going to see a lot of that.”

Going forward, VR experiences will likely bring people out of their homes to engage socially, she continued. As examples, IMAX has opened a VR center in Los Angeles and The Void, an immersive theme park, opened an attraction in Times Square last year.

“I’ve seen a shared VR experience where you’ve got a group of people in a room with headsets on but they don’t have headphones,” she said. “There’s a Dolby Atmos system, so there is spatialized audio, but you can hear your friends; you have a sense of presence.”

VR is the ideal platform for certain kinds of storytelling, and audio can play a significant role. Notes on Blindness is a VR companion piece to a documentary in which a man records an audio diary as he loses his sight. “It’s an example of the kind of story you could only tell in VR and 360,” said Sourikoff.

A panel that proffered perspectives on the future of VR/AR in the music industry returned to the issue of return on investment. “We want to make money,” exclaimed Dipak Patel of Zeality, which was founded with the intention of monetizing properties for content creators, including artists.

Moderator Courtney Harding wondered what the biggest challenges might be for music and VR. From her observations, she said, good creative ideas and funding are two major hurdles.

“I don’t think shooting concerts is the way to go,” said Maurice Bernstein of Giant Step. “It’s about the narrative, giving the consumer an experience through VR that they wouldn’t normally get from an artist.”

“At the end of the day, an artist wants to know how they can use this platform to monetize; that’s the end game,” according to Mike Johns of UrbanWorld Music. “We have several liquor brands that have joined forces with us” to create VR content.

Harding asked the panel what VR music experiences have made an impact thus far. “The best thing I’ve seen is Google’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen. The budget was huge, but it took it to a whole different level, getting into the head of Freddie Mercury,” said Bernstein.

“Sony Music’s Kygo thing [‘Carry Me’] was pretty interesting,” said Patel. “But how many people actually saw it? I feel like we’re innovating ahead of the rate of adoption. That’s a recipe for killing an industry.”

Digital Entertainment World
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