The LA Philharmonic Is Trying to Perfectly Recreate Concerts in Virtual Reality
Photo: LA Philharmonic

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The LA Philharmonic Is Trying to Perfectly Recreate Concerts in Virtual Reality

The LA Philharmonic is going above and beyond for a remote experience.

Two weeks ago I paid $2.75 to be transported from Brooklyn to downtown Los Angeles. For the cost of a train ride, I got to listen to the LA Philharmonic orchestra play the opening minutes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony while sitting in the front row of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

This didn't involve a teleporter, but another kind of futuristic technology. Using virtual reality, the LA Philharmonic wants to literally take their show on the road, and bring classical music to people who might not be able to experience it first hand otherwise.

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Using the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR headsets, the non profit music organization hopes to take performances mobile and capture a whole new audience. The organizers hope to roll out to schools, public parks, and other places where people naturally congregate.

From September 11th to October 18th, the LA Philharmonic will roll out 'Van' Beethoven, a decked out concert hall on wheels. The truck will have room for six people to sit onboard and strap into a VR headset to enjoy the smooth stylings of Beethoven for up to four minutes at a time. They've taken great care with the interior. The carpet of the truck will match what's on the floor of Walt Disney Concert Hall and the seats themselves will be actual concert hall seats uprooted from the hall.

"Van" Beethoven is more truck than van, but expect luxury concert hall-style seating inside. Photo: LA Philharmonic

Dates and locations can be found here, and the Philharmonic will have a system for organizations like schools to request a stop at their location. The truck will travel around the greater Los Angeles area, and will be open to everyone 13 or older.

I got to experience Van Beethoven at a demonstration here in New York, and it was pretty seamless. Virtual reality, especially when you're just watching a scene and not interacting with anything, can get really stale really quickly, but the Philharmonic seems to have some clever workarounds for that. As you watch and listen to the orchestra, your perspective changes several times throughout the performance. You start in first row, but then suddenly you're sitting up in the balcony seat, then off to either side, and even sitting with the performers in front of the conductor.

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Using 3D cameras and binaural recording, they've captured the way sound and visuals would change if you were watching the real thing

As these perspective shifts happen, the sound changes with them. As you crane your head around or switch seats, the music projected through your headphones changes to reflect your altered prospective. Using 3D cameras and binaural recording, they've captured the way sound and visuals would change if you were watching the real thing. You can turn in your seat a full 360° and look directly behind you, and the source of the music changes to reflect that.

If you're not in the LA area, an app will be available for both the Occulus Rift and the Samsung Gear VR that will allow you to experience Van Beethoven from wherever you happen to be.

In a 1849 essay called the Artwork of the Future, the German composer Richard Wagner described the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which would be a medium of art that would engage with all of our senses and combine all the other kinds of art that came before into one holistic experience: music, tragedy, drama, etc. At the time he was sure that this medium was theatre.

Wagner was ahead of his time, but not by enough. Virtual and augmented reality might truly be the Gesamtkunstwerk, a medium that combines audio and visuals (and maybe one day touch and smell, get on it scientists) into a single seamless experience that transcends the parts of its sum. Van Beethoven only lasts four minutes for now, but that might a four minute look into the future.