The history of VR goes back to 1838 and the invention of stereoscopic photos and viewers, to the ‘60s VR pioneers like Mort Heilig and his VR Sensorama system and Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad computer interface, or to the revival of VR in the ‘80s and ‘90s as personal computers gained adoption. But in the last three years, there’s no denying that VR developments have made huge leaps in technological improvements and production techniques. That costs have come down while capabilities have increased for camera and filming equipment. That the upward trend in consumer adoption of VR headsets is expected to keep going upward.
When Juan Santillan, vantage.tv CEO and founder, first began working in immersive capture and software during the early days of 360-video he didn’t envision it would lead him to major VR live streaming productions for Coachella, Lollapalooza, Stagecoach, Austin City Limits, Outside Lands. Or that by the end of 2016, his company would have produced over 120 live music events in VR, not including eSports live streaming events like League of Legends.
In fact, he sights weren’t even on entertainment at all. He got his start by creating 360-video mapping applications in real estate industry. It was the location, location, location factor of being in Los Angeles when his unique 360-development and capture skills, which were almost unheard of at the time, were discovered by the Black Eyed Peas.
Breaking the 2D Music Video Mold with 360-Video
The 360 music video Santillan would produce for the Black Eyed Peas’ “The Time: The Dirty Bit” was not only the first music video of its kind to be created using this new technology, but it would become a part of a larger mobile development spearheaded by the tech head, will.i.am. The singer, producer, and entrepreneur believed the long-standing album model was “dead.” In order to keep up with the way the world was evolving, he formed a new company, will.i.apps, in partnership with Edo Segal of Futurity Ventures, to release a platform enabling fellow music artists to create their own 360-degree video apps.
will.i.am even saw 360-video changing not only the viewer’s experience and the way music videos were directed, but the full spectrum of 360 “Allows artists to add more layers onto that 4-minute song that is audio only. Songwriting changes,” he stated in an interview with TechCrunch. Reciting the lyrics of “…Dirty Bit,” he illustrated his point, “‘As she was walking down the hallway and she seen that little girl and I told her to turn left'—you can do all that and turn left—'and I look up to the sky and saw the rainbow'—you can look up at the sky in the app. You couldn’t do that yesterday. It was linear. Now it is directional. If I knew we were going to do this app when I wrote the song, I would have wrote the song totally different.”
The song itself bridged the affection will.i.am had for ‘80s Atari 8-bit, pixelated visual and music culture with the fact that technology had “caught up with our imagination,” he stated in Black Eye Peas behind-the-scenes video for “...Dirty Bit.” DJ Ammo went old school to create the “Dirty Bit” beats for the track while “The new era. The new youth” in the video and the Black Eyed Peas frontman were visually pixelated.
will.i.am went on to explain how this new medium of 360-video worked with the smartphone’s app, BEP360, by physically turning from one direction to another (something that’s more commonplace today) to get that full 360 view, “It’s a whole new world.” And with the BEP360 app, which in 2011 was $2.99, will.i.am was also one of the first content creators to monetize 360-video to the consumer.
"It was a great experience,” Santillan stated about his first venture in working with a music superstar tech geek to take 360 to a whole new level. “After that, we saw that there was not only an interesting market opportunity in that [entertainment] space, but it was one vertical where the value delivered was huge for the user."
The Festival Wonder Years of 360-Video and Live Streaming VR
When Facebook made the now infamous acquisition of Oculus in 2014, Santillan believed that move was the next catalyst for virtual reality. "Finally, what we've been doing for the past few years, it now had relevance." A $2 billion-dollar investment is pretty substantial, and while some have called Facebook’s valuation of Oculus into question since then, that significant validation of the overall market value for VR and 360-video is what led to Santillan to launch vantage.tv in 2014, with a specific focus on live events.
At the same time, the rumble of VR had made its way to music festival promoters as a potentially new way to create immersive experiences.
C3 Presents began working with vantage.tv in 2014 to live stream their Austin City Limits festival performances in VR to Oculus Rift headsets during all three days of the festival. The agreement was to run a beta test with a closed group of existing Oculus owners, the type who were already part of the growing VR enthusiast community.
In 2012 Springboard Productions, led by Grammy-winning producer, Hank Neuberger, had begun capturing rudimentary VR at ACL with the camera equipment that was available at the time. It took a few days for the offline stitching process to be completed, and then the VR content was available in VOD format.
Today’s live streaming VR camera equipment like Nokia’s OZO was just a twinkle in the eye in 2014. Continuing to work with Springboard’s production outfit, Santillan and his team assembled four cameras themselves to capture the ACL acts in VR. Because this was an untested technology endeavor, his company covered those costs, considering it to be an investment that would pay off.
It was also crucial to implement a full technology and production workflow that meshed within the existing parameters of a festival, making the VR live stream as seamless as possible. “I think that demo in October 2014 enabled us to not only prove that it was technically possible, but second, that we could do it without interfering with the existing 2D production they had going on the stage.”
The last and and critical part of the transformative demo was having the ACL staff experience the footage and the content vantage.tv had created on a VR headset. "They would actually see for the first time, the value and understand the technology, and how it was going to impact their market."
The next year in 2015 Samsung became their VR sponsor and partner to live stream VR for ACL. It still wasn’t being made available to the worldwide public, but was broadened beyond a test group to two on-site activations equipped with Samsung Gear VR headsets where, for the first time, festival attendees could experience live streaming VR of ACL performers as if they had VIP, front-stage access.
That same year Coachella live streamed VR for the first time with vantage.tv’s team setting up six to seven cameras on stage along with the full production workflow. 2015 also saw on-site sponsors tipping their toes in the virtual waters, such as H&M, the fashion sponsor since 2009 who outfitted their “Transformation” tent with a 360-degree selfie station.
When it came time for the return of live streaming VR at ACL and Coachella in 2016, because of the technical achievements from the previous years, vantage.tv’s focus shifted to measuring production value in virtual reality. “Are we creating fan engagement? Is a differentiated experience that adds value to the fans?"
This came to fruition through vantage.tv’s first Coachella VR app and the inclusion of Coachella’s customized Google Cardboard VR headset that was included in the attendee’s welcome box, along with their festival wristband and other goodies.
Given Springboard’s previous history with days of post-production stitching, Neuberger was ecstatic that they now had “processors that were able to do the stitching in virtually real-time so we were able to broadcast on YouTube live performances in VR.”
At ACL last year, the partnership with Samsung and Red Bull TV broadcasted 360-video live streams from Zilker Park in Austin out to the masses, featuring Foals, Mumford & Sons, LL Cool J, and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.
Santillan believed 2016’s live streaming VR broadcasts hit the sweet spot of high VR production value while retaining the balance and harmony with the legacy 2D live streaming process. By then his team knew the drill of how to best work within the back-of-house festival production. The talent managers, the acts, and the sponsors were excited about the VR experience being broadcast to fans while embracing the cameras living within the other elements of the festival ecosystem.
Monetization and Sponsorships Models for Live Streaming VR
From the beginning, Santillan and his team have focused on tying together three crucial components of a VR live streaming activation: “There has to be a great fit between the brand, whatever content is being showcased in VR, and the audience. If you can make sure that those three components are aligned and tight, then you can make magic."
Thus far, access to this VR content has all been made available for free to worldwide audiences with brand sponsorships making the financial investment and driving the ROI for VR broadcasts.
“We believe strongly that the impact a brand can have in VR is very powerful, just for the fact that there's no looking away. This is where mixed reality can come into play,” Santillan states. “How you have product placement that is natural to the environment, to the stage, to the people around the user.”
According to SuperData Research, 2017 is expected to see the emerging VR market grow by an astounding $4.9B, “driven largely by hardware with software getting its footing. By 2020, the virtual reality market will be worth 20 times what it was in 2016. $37.7B to be precise.”
vantage.tv’s CEO is also setting his sights on new VR opportunities for monetization that have been two years in the making. This past January, the company launched the Eric Church VR concert experience, selling virtual ticket plus VR for $34.99, or $19.99 without the viewer, giving fans access to footage taken during the Stagecoach festival (another production partnership with Springboard) in 2016, including “Drink in My Hand,” “Springsteen,” “Give Me Back My Hometown,” and “Talladega,” along with views from the stage with the band and the massive Stagecoach crowd.
"It's been amazing. The user engagement. The reactions. When we see fans experience high-quality VR and content, it opens the door to VR ticketing, naturally,” Santillan said of this this new way to extend the investment in VR content capture beyond the live streaming festival window. “We believe that's the biggest opportunity. Of course, this is tied to the market. But at this point, it's undeniable."
Going forward, the virtual ticket model has the potential to become a premium experience above the legacy 2D live streaming that music and festival fans have come to expect for free. VR live streaming has the potential to solve the problem of cap demand of not only festivals, but live events and concerts across the board. If a festival sells out, the event may offer 2D live streamed viewing, more so in the festival versus the concert space. In a live streaming VR scenario, that experience is taken to a whole new, real-life immersive level.
Last December in San Francisco, Santillan was one of the presenters at UploadVR’s OZO 360 Masterclass. Citing Taylor Swift as an example, “She has about 70 million fans on Twitter. Her last tour she sold 2.3 million tickets. Right? That’s a sold-out show in every city. And still, 67 million of her fans couldn’t make it to the show. The reality is there is attendance friction.”
In addition to cap demand, there are a variety of other friction factors that the virtual ticket can help overcome: those with limited time, budgets, or the inability to travel, or the friction of age for young music fans not quite old enough to attend without a guardian, or even those who may still love the bands of their youth, but have outgrown the crowds and potential hassle of a music festival.
There is the added opportunity to extend the live music experience for those that were there in person by giving them a way to relive the concert or performance of their favorite band, up close and personal.
Santillan also sees VR live streaming having the same potential for generating future festival ticket sales in the way promoters have seen with 2D live streaming, where it becomes a marketing tool, "Once you taste it, once you are at the event, and you get immersed in the world of Coachella or Austin City Limits, you're going to want to go."
Last year VRLIVE brought this VR monetization model to the mid-sized festival, LEVITATION in Austin, selling 1,000 virtual tickets in just five days prior to the 30,000 capacity event. Had the tornado not come through Austin, forcing the cancellation of the festival, it would have provided another virtual ticket use case, but there will no doubt be many more to come.
Bulldog DM & vantage.tv VR live streaming production in action at Vive Latino, 2017
What’s Next on the Technical Horizon for Live Streaming VR?
As vantage.tv looks to the 2017 festival season, which already began for them this past March where his team partnered with Bulldog DM agency for the first-ever VR live streaming activation at Vive Latino, a premier Mexico City-based rock festival sponsored by Coca-Cola, and then the Indio, California festival around the corner, their foundation of a reliable, bullet proof operation is “a given.”
Today, multiple Nokia OZO cameras are central to vantage.tv’s production tool kit, complementing increased level of technical capabilities. The Ozo camera is designed for live VR broadcasting and was adopted by Sony Pictures for their own VR content productions. They key to their design is the ability to deliver real-time playback on a VR headset with rapid stitching from the eight cameras, which was just not possible with other VR equipment.
For both ACL and Coachella, the VR live streaming and 360-video experience will be extended beyond on-site activations and out to the world. The next stage in the VR game is about increasing the quality of the immersive graphics package, or virtual lobby, that the headset wearer sees when they enter into the VR space. “We're one of the few companies releasing mixed reality live that aligned with the music, real-time graphic generation on top of the VR video,” said Santillan.
This technical and development progress appeared in this year’s upgraded Coachella VR mobile app vantage.tv released in early March, which now features augmented reality goodies.
By aiming your phone at this year’s Coachella Welcome Box, users can view AR Easter eggs “that will be present throughout the festival” for a modernised festival scavenger hunt. Once again, 360-video content captured is being repurposed within the Coachella app featuring 2016 VR footage from the Ferris wheel ride, food demonstrations in the Do LaB, and more, with new content from this year expected to be added to the app.
There's three main attributes that vantage.tv delivers to remote festival fans: first is presence, what people experience within the virtual world they see while wearing the VR headset; second is access, enabling those on-site fans to have the front-row view and experience; and third, intimacy, feeling as though a fan's favorite artist is singing for them, to them.
A historical milestone in American history and for VR technology was President Obama’s Farewell Address this past January. Presented by VRScout in production partnership with Radiant Images and vantage.tv, the address was live streamed on YouTube in 360-video, in YouTube VR on PlayStation VR and Google Daydream, and on Facebook via Samsung Gear VR.
Santillan’s additional plans for vantage.tv’s VR streaming service expansion beyond the festival and concert space, or productions they've delivered for eSports, includes education, or the thousands of business conferences happening in every vertical imaginable, with the cost of travel, hotel and assorted expenses being reduced to the price of a virtual attendee registration.
Making his clients happy with the results of a virtual reality production is an obvious priority for Santillan as a business owner and service provider. But what really excites him is the reaction from real people experiencing virtual reality, where he sees view times of 25 minutes or more, and that continues to fuels his passion for this evolving form of media and technology. To achieve a successful VR production requires the delivery of fun experiences (leading to the long view times), work in harmony with the back-of-house event production and artists, having a solid level of reliability, and a positive return on investment for the content holder.
Although he led that MasterClass for UploadVR, he doesn't consider himself to be a master and warns anyone else in the space from using that monikor in what is considered to still be the early days of VR. "We have too much to learn. And that's the other thing that is facinating. The industry, the equipment, the production, how we interact with the events," Santillan points out, emphasizing the quality of the experience for VR viewer is at the top of priority list. In his company's position of content creation and storytelling, and being a part of the greater VR community, "We need to set those standards."