It was November 1, 2014 at a downtown Los Angeles Halloween rooftop party where, according to Dann Saxton, the Co-founder and Head of Content for VRLIVE, the first VR 360 video live stream took place.
“It was called the Zombie Prom,” Saxton said, telling the story of that night. “600 people on the roof with a full stage, live music, a full bar,” and a night of the living dead featuring prom queens and kings, all live streamed in VR 360 video out to the entire world.
Prior to his first entry into VR, Saxton had been in Los Angeles for some time, running the historic Roxy music venue on Sunset Boulevard, when he was introduced to Heiner Lippman, the founder, and CEO of VRLIVE. The German engineer had been developing VR technology in his Los Angeles testing lab and was interested in working with Saxton to live stream music performances in VR.
Initially, Saxton turned down Lippman’s offer because he didn’t think the bands would go for it. “It’s so hard to get anyone to approve live anything,” Saxton said, adding that record labels, the band’s management, and their agents weren’t too keen either. “There’s so much red tape.”
But he did continue to work with Lippman in the lab to perfect the platform. After Saxton worked with Lippman to pull off the first VR live stream on that rooftop, he was hooked. The potential had broken wide, and he began tapping all his contacts in the music industry to educate them on this technology; this new way of reality-based live broadcasting.
From the Rooftop to The Roxy VRLIVE LAB
Let it be known that Saxton is also a musician at heart, having been the lead singer in Butane and Kill the Complex, in addition to his 9-year stint at managing The Roxy.
Knowing first impressions are everything and both the audience and the VR subjects were quite finicky, Saxton tested out their VR live streaming experiences with caution, first tapping his musician buddies and local LA bands as his guinea pigs. “Once we perfected that, I reached out to Slash and Matt Sorum from Guns N’ Roses. Those guys are family at the Roxy, and they said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Then it was time for another first: the first 360-degree live-streamed concert with a major artist, Adopt the Arts benefit at The Roxy, January 12, 2015, Sorum’s annual fund-raising concert that provides musical instruments for local schools. The line up consisted of the who’s who of rock and roll legends, including Duff, Slash, and Matt Sorum from GNR, Billy Gibbons from ZZTop, Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi, Jimmy Vivino from the Conan O’Brien show, Edgar Winter, and Butch Trucks, the drummer from the Allman Brothers.
Once that milestone was reached, Saxton hit the ground running with his network of music contacts he’d cultivated throughout the years, “We started educating the music industry on what VR is, what VR live streaming can mean to the industry, and how to monetize eventually once these headsets are in every home.”
VRLIVE Takes VR to the World of Festivals and Sports
Since that night at The Roxy, the artists VRLIVE has worked with reads like a Grammy red carpet parade: U2, Coldplay, Radiohead, Demi Lovato, Slash, Ellie Goulding, Cage The Elephant, Justin Bieber, Steve Aoki, Logic, Brian Wilson, Johnny Depp, and Alice Cooper.
The company has also played a role in a number of other VR 360 activations and experiences, including Lollapalooza, the iHeartRadio Music Awards at the Forum in Los Angeles, and the Indy 500.
For the signature racing event, the VRLIVE platform gave fans perspectives from three different locations around the track. “You’re able to put on your headset and transport yourself,” Saxton explained. “It’s almost like a, ‘Choose your own adventure’ through Gaze Control.”
Gaze Control is a feature VRLIVE integrates into the VR experience, where the viewer, while wearing the headset, simply gazes at a focal point within a rendered CGI visual, such as the logo of a particular festival stage or one of the locations for the Indy 500 track. Then, it will automatically pull up that specific VR feed, enabling the viewer to have a “Beam me up Scotty” type of visual trip.
At the EDMbiz conference in 2015, an annual gathering of dance music business folks produced by Insomniac, the company’s founder and CEO, Pasquale Rotella, had stated his intention to capture that year’s Electronic Daisy Carnival (EDC) with VR cameras. Rotella had said he didn’t quite know what he and his team would do with the footage, but he knew that VR was a technology that would eventually be woven into their operation.
The following year, Insomniac turned to VRLIVE to make it an official feature of EDC 2016.
“We’ve taken a two-fold approach to EDC Las Vegas with VRLIVE,” Rotella said. The first part was to build a physical viewing station in Carnival Square called the VRLIVE Lounge. It was equipped with 50 Samsung Gear VR headsets that gave the attendees access to the view from an EDC stage via the VR 360 camera feed, “So they could experience what it was like to look out at the crowd while being surrounded by all of the amazing production elements,” he explained.
That second piece was routing feeds from kineticFIELD, cosmicMEADOW, circuitGROUNDS and bassPOD, and via Gaze Control within the virtual lobby, attendees could seamlessly move from stage to stage without leaving the physical lounge, experiencing what it would be like to be dancing right next to Tiesto or the other DJs during their live set.
It was the best seat in the house, and although VRLIVE also had twenty brand ambassadors roaming the EDC ground to promote the Lounge, you know what they say about the power of word of mouth. “We had a line for three days straight,” Saxton said. “Kids coming in, putting on the headset, and being able to transport themselves to one of the stages. It was insane.”
Austin’s LEVITATION festival in Austin partnered with VRLIVE to sell virtual tickets for $20 each, enabling the virtual festivalgoer to remotely experience Animal Collective, Courtney Barnett, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Black Angels, Ty Segall & The Muggers, Allah Las, and more artists performing on the three different stages at the festival.
“The promoters were worried, at the beginning,” said Saxton, concerned about how this VR virtual ticket experiment would impact revenue. To protect the sales of full-price tickets to physically attend the festival, they waited until a week before the first day and sell-thru numbers had reached over 30,000 before making the official announcement.
“And we sold 1,000 in four days,” Saxton said, which for a smaller festival with a new technology offering, it was a pleasing result for all parties. “We saw that as a real peek into the future of how this could go and how open people are from around the world, to transport themselves virtually, live, somewhere else and pay a fee for that. Now we’re having big discussions with big companies about this.”
“We’ve wanted to live stream the festival for years, each year a large number of people come in from all over the world, but we know many more are unable to make the trip and experience the festival,” The Reverberation Appreciation Society, the festival’s promoter, said in a statement prior to the start of LEVITATION. “The fact that we’ll be doing our first stream in 360 VR is unreal, we’re really excited to be able to bring Levitation to the world.”
Unfortunately, LEVITATION was forced to cancel the festival due to severe weather conditions and refunds were granted. BUT – this new monetization model still shows promise and has proven to be of interest to festivalgoers while addressing the long-standing concern by promoters when it comes to live streaming content: that people will stay home and just experience the festival for free.
While most of those worries have been quelled, as promoters have seen evidence that live streaming actually has a positive impact on ticket sales, virtual tickets has the potential to open up a new revenue channel for promoters and a new way for domestic and internationally-based music fans to enjoy their favorite festivals.
For Insomniac, they’re still in the exploratory stages of their VR strategy, especially when it comes to providing off-site live streaming access in VR. “Our festivals are so immersive that we want to make sure the VR experience is on the same level,” Rotelle explained. “We’ve seen the technology improve a lot over just the past 12 months so we are continuing to experiment and create content with what we’ve already captured. Recently, we released a snippet of 360-degree VR footage from EDC Las Vegas 2016 for people to experience from their computers at home. I hope it inspired people who have never been to the festival to join us on the Speedway this summer.”
In 2016 VRLIVE partnered with Samsung Mobile to create VR music pieces of content during Lollapalooza last year, operated the first-ever Bestival Red Bull 360º live stream “with a very emotional Prince tribute finale,” and has more VR live streaming plans in the works for festivals in 2017, none of which VRLIVE is able to speak about in any official capacity as of yet.
The Role of the VR Software Developer
The behind-the-scenes of a live streaming experience in VR goes far beyond the camera equipment and filming. Through the evolution of VRLIVE, the Los Angeles-based outfit has built out a development team to not only create the software foundation for the virtual lobby or lounge with its Gaze Control feature and real-time info graphics, but the company became contractual partners with Universal Music Group (UMG) in October of 2016, working with the label on the custom development of VRTGO, UMG’s signature VR platform.
The app is available on Android and iOS, in addition to Samsung Gear VR headset ecosystem, with a viewing option of both headset mode, in 360-video with your smartphone, and online at www.VRTGO.com.
For the launch of VRTGO that October, it was back to the rooftop for Saxton, but this time it was atop the Capitol Records building with UMG artists, Avenged Sevenfold. On the ground level, the parking lot was transformed into a full-on party with food trucks, bar, merch stands, and over 1,000 music fans. The red-carpeted VIP VRTGO lounge was equipped with VR headsets to experience the live stream of the Avenged Sevenfold set, including “Nightmare,” and see each member playing up close.
For this year’s Super Bowl, VRLIVE partnered with Shazam to design and developed a CGI 360º environment with hot spots for Pepsi, allowing fans to Shazam their television during the halftime show to open up this experience within the Shazam app. The microsite, pepsihalftimevr.com, takes the viewer to exclusive behind-the-scenes content of Lady Gaga as she prepared for her Pepsi Halftime performance.
photo: Andy Cross
Taking VR Live Streaming to the Masses
In November of 2015, the New York Times became the news themselves when they took the leap into VR content, introducing a “New Form of Storytelling” via their NYT VR app and the inclusion of a NYT-branded Google Cardboard VR viewer with the November 8th edition of the Sunday print newspaper. Those first VR-based stories centered around children who were driven from their homes by war and persecution, including a boy from eastern Ukraine, a Syrian girl, and a 9-year-old boy from South Sudan. “This new filmmaking technology enables an uncanny feeling of connection with people whose lives are far from our own,” wrote NYT Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein.
The NYT VR app, in partnership with Samsung’s VR technology, has continued to feature new films and clips, from a 10-minute piece “Lincoln in the Bardo” about the death of the president’s son, to The Daily 360, short stories in VR form relating to selected stories that appear on nytimes.com.
Although anyone can view 360-video on YouTube, Facebook, or on VR apps like NYT VR, the immersive experience really happens when viewers use a cardboard viewing device or a VR headset and headphones.
This is where live events like music festivals or sporting tournaments can play a role in exposing this technology to a mass amount of people over a weekend. Facebook launched a VR education initiative this past January by providing the public with an opportunity to test drive the virtual reality experience. Facebook’s 30-city tour of the country was led by a series of pop-up shop installations in airports, shopping malls, and even ski resorts like Copper Mountain, where people could don the full VR gear with the assistance of Facebook staff, and leave with a VP portrait of themselves in gif format that they could share with their friends.
“They’re smart by acknowledging that you have to educate everybody,” Saxton said of the Facebook VR tour. “You just don’t get it until you put on a headset.”
During the PGA Tour, which was also live streamed on Twitter and Facebook Live, because it was an AT&T-sponsored event, Saxton stated that the VRLIVE stream activation was extended out to select AT&T stores across the country where customers could try out the VR headsets to transport themselves to the green in real time.
The area of gaming is a powerful vertical within the VR community, and as more gaming units like PlayStation’s VR Powered by PS4 increase their market share, and consumers continue to use gaming units as OTTs to access streaming entertainment content like Netflix, that opens the door for increased adoption and new VR content access beyond games.
Google’s Daydream headset offers a higher grade of VR quality over the Google Cardboard but at an $80 dollar price point, which is significantly less than the $500 to $700 range of headsets like Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. The Daydream-ready phones are currently all Android including the Pixel (of course), and although Apple’s VR headset patents have been in the news with numerous rumors flying about, the company is doing their tight-lipped stance on official plans for VR and AR devices in 2017.
Driving Quality Content and Storytelling While Disrupting the Ad Model
The Super Bowl is a highly competitive time in the advertising world, and as such, every year ad agencies not only try to out-create the competition, but also their own campaign endeavors from years past.
“Super Bowl is the biggest day in advertising and following our incredibly successful 2016, we wanted to push the creativity and storytelling even further,” Dean Evans, the chief marketing officer for Hyundai Motor America, the official car and NFL sponsor, told Auto Week. “Our brand commitment is to make things ‘better’ and we are going to give some deserving fans an experience they will never forget.”
Those deserving football fans were members of the military – Corporal Trista Strauch, Specialist Erik Guerrero and Sergeant Richard Morrill – who were the heroes of the now infamous Hyundai 90-second spot that played at the end of the game. The mini documentary was filmed, edited, and produced during the game, an ambitious undertaking that typically takes weeks. Those chosen military members stationed at the U.S. Military Base in Zagan, Poland, enjoyed a 360º live streaming experience of being in Houston at the stadium, watching the Big Game in a suite with their family members virtually by their side.
About a month and a half prior, Peter Berg, the director of “Friday Night Lights” fame was leading the commercial, having history with Hyundai on past Super Bowl ads. His company contacted VRLIVE to see if the concept that the agency, Innocean Worldwide America, Hyundai’s in-house Agency of Record, had for the spot would be possible. Saxton and Lippman, and VRLIVE head of IT, Evan Bovie, knew they could pull it off, and quickly put their team to work to research and secure the circular domes, and run multiple streaming tests between Houston and the base in Poland via beefed up satellite trucks.
“It came down to the wire. We organized everything, did rehearsals with everybody and Peter in LA,” Saxton explained. VRLIVE was also responsible for ensuring the 360 camera configuration plan was solid and tested for the domes in Poland and in Houston, along with the small screen-embedded Teddy Bear sitting in the stadium suite where military wives, husbands, and children were interacting with their loved ones thousands of miles away.
Most of the filming work and production was accomplished during the first quarter of the game, which Saxton described as working like a game of Tetris, dropping clips in one after another until they were happy with Hyundai’s “Operation Better” spot. “It was pretty impressive to watch,” Saxton said.
[UPDATE: Added new behind-the-scenes video from Hyundai released April 4, 2017]
This particular approach of this 360 video ad experience was not only a first for Hyundai, but for the ad world as a whole. The storytelling, documentary style shows great promise to retain an audience’s attention in a time when people of all ages, not just millennials or Gen Z, are tuning out or blocking traditional advertising.
“The cool thing is that our advertising is not intrusive. For the brand, it’s cool because it’s not something that can be clicked away or skipped. It’s just part of the 360 environment.”
All the players on “Operation Better” had deep knowledge of their respective areas of expertise, which was essential in being able to pull off a project with so many moving pieces, within a short window of time, connecting two different areas of the world, and had the Department of Defense involved.
When it comes to the quality of VR and 360 video content being released, Saxton sees some agencies claiming to provide these services while not having the chops to do it right. “It hurts the whole industry. The whole growth of [VR],” he said. And when that happens, a brand, unhappy with the results, can believe that this type of enriched media doesn’t work or deliver on its promise. A viewer sees low-grade video and forms the opinion that it’s far from “reality.”
“Those people see that content, like you said, they can be turned off and not go out and buy a headset because they don’t think it’s the right thing. We’re put back a couple of years because it’s not getting to the mainstream. It’s a big thing that we talk about in the VR community. The quality of the content needs to be worthwhile, or don’t put it out. Because you’re going to hurt everybody.”
Quality storytelling, or lack thereof, can also impact a brand, be it a festival, promoter, or an advertiser. This is exactly why Rotelle proceeds into the VR space in a methodical fashion. “While we want to use it to help enhance and expand our brand, we also don’t want it to feel contrived,” he said. “VR is still a growing and changing format and once it fully develops then those opportunities will present themselves but we will always make sure the experience reflects the true spirit of Insomniac.”
At the same time, Saxton’s company continues to push the boundaries on where VR can play a role in moving various verticals beyond where they’ve been before. And because VRLIVE has been at the center of a number of large and successful activations and projects, their expertise is becoming known. “People will listen to us, and we can go in and have those types of meetings and pitch these types of things. And people aren’t going to think we’re crazy,” he said, laughing. “‘You did the Super Bowl.’ We appreciate the respect we now have that allows us to do these things.”
Deep-Dive Live Streaming Workshop for Promoters at SXSW 2017
MAR 15, 2017 | 2:30PM – 4:00PM | Austin Convention Center
If you are attending SXSW this year, I invite you to attend the “Deep-Dive Live Streaming Workshop for Promoters,” which will get into the nuts and bolts of live streaming entertainment, the business case for promoters and brands, its impact on advertising and branded content, cost and logistics, and what the future holds for live streaming VR.
This SXSW session requires you to RSVP and seating is limited, so click here to register.
And there’s more…my live streaming research report is in the works and will be released in conjunction with the SXSW workshop. But you need not attend to get your hands on a copy. Just click below to opt in.