By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Symphony orchestras are rarely on the bleeding technological edge, but with a new wave of virtual reality headsets looking to enter the marketplace in the near future, there might be no experience better suited to fully make use of this emerging field than an orchestra playing at full bore.

Virtual reality is a term that dates back to the late 1930s but the term was really popularized in the 1980s by computer scientist, technology philosopher and — interestingly enough — classical composer Jaron Lanier, who worked for Atari before founding VPL Research to focus on commercializing virtual reality tech. The term itself promises a fully immersive sensory experience that conjures sci-fi images of Star Trek’s holodeck or the more ominous immersive world from The Matrix.

Virtual reality has always fallen somewhere between watch-based phones and flying cars on the spectrum of futuristic sounding inventions that the general public has heard about for decades as one of those imminent tech game changers. There have been notable efforts from Morton Heilig’s 1955 design for the Sensorama to the Ivan Sutherland’s 1968 augmented reality contraption that was nicknamed the Sword of Damocles for the roomful of heavy duty tech that hung above the user’s head.

Ivan Sutherland 220Px Sensorama Patent Fig5

(Left) Close up of the Sword of Damocles (Right) Patent for the Sensorama

Generally speaking though, the technology and cost of equipment has never quite been feasible enough for virtual reality to really catch on, but several developers have been working on a new generation of VR headsets that might take virtual reality into the mainstream. Sony is working on a headset called Morpheus, Valve and HTC are collaborating on the Vive and Oculus, the early leader in the field who was bought by Facebook for $2 billion, is aiming to release the Rift — a commercial headset that users can use at home — in early 2016 after many years of development.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic recently launched its own virtual reality project. “Van Beethoven” is housed in (what else) a van that will tour the Los Angeles area during the orchestra’s Immortal Beloved Beethoven Festival to put the users center stage during a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.


“We’re taking this VR experience, loading into in a truck and taking it to arts festivals, museums and outdoor events — trying to get it seen by people who might not get to otherwise experience one of our concerts,” said the LA Phil’s Amy Seidenwurm in an announcement video for the project.

To use the industry term, what Seidenwurm is talking about is “audience development.” Can we use new tech to reach new audiences and in the long term maybe get more people interested in this music? That is a constant goal for orchestras and often one of the leading motivations any time you see orchestras or classical music organizations dabble with high-tech ventures.

If you’ve watched the classical industry long enough, it’s easy to become a little skeptical of this pattern. We’ve often played catch-up, trying to get into areas of the Internet, streaming video or phone apps in an attempt to reach new audiences. All of those ventures have been worthwhile, often creating added value for an audience who was already inclined to go to an orchestra concert, but it’s never been a silver bullet to new ticket sales.

Virtual reality probably won’t be that silver bullet either, but the symphony orchestra is naturally suited as a partner for the emerging field of virtual reality because it shows off that technology’s full potential. When new tech emerges, it is not looking for content that was the most popular in previous generation of media, it is looking for content that shows why it offers a new experience.

Take for example early IMAX theaters in the United States that took over planetariums and popped up in specially built domes. Nature or science documentaries are never going to out perform a Seinfeld rerun on cable television, but they excelled in the early IMAX format because a trip to Antarctica or the Serengeti in Africa showed just what the IMAX cameras were capable of. Similarly when 3D televisions popped up for sale in department stores, they often used footage of extreme sports like snowboarding or parasailing — traditionally niche audience fare — to demonstrate the technology in stores.

There is something compelling about watching the ever-animated Gustavo Dudamel up close and then turning around and being able to see each member of the LA Phil at work. Kind of like the zoomed-in, slow motion replay in sports, it’s a viewpoint that is off limits to even the most expensive seat in the house.

But visuals aren’t the reason you go see an orchestra, and virtual reality becomes much more exciting when you consider the emerging field of 3D sound that is often being paired with it. In 2013, the musician Beck created a “360 degree concert experience.” The premise was to allow a user to move around the concert space freely (imagine a street view from Google Maps) and not only see but to hear what it would have looked like from any spot, using a technology called binaural audio. You can watch and read a detailed and fascinating explanation of binaural audio from the The Verge here, but essentially it is a pair of microphones built to simulate the way our ears hear.

This is where a symphony orchestra shines. Imagine a year or two into the future where you could put on your VR headset and a pair of headphones and be placed on stage in a performance and freely wander between a few set locations to see and hear what Shostakovich Five sounds like from the first violins or the low brass.

That’s an experience that would appeal to orchestra fans, general music fans or even just technophiles at large. What new technology wants to sell more than anything else is new experiences. The versatility and scale of an orchestra — with anywhere from 70 to 100 musicians and dozens of colors and sounds to explore — is uniquely suited to show off the possibilities of these new technologies.