In today’s ultra-connected world, we’re used to having Zoom conversations with family and colleagues, opening Spotify to check out artists from around the world and using Google Translate to access content in any language.
Concerts and sporting events are among the few events that still bring large crowds together — as in up to 100,000 people — to share space, energy, camaraderie and just fun. Analog has been the way to go for most consumers, even as avant-garde companies started to experiment with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). After all, it’s the atmosphere of being with fellow fans that you can’t recreate effectively at home.
Even before the pandemic, though, cutting-edge tech allowed artists, sports teams and corporate events to experiment with the fringe of AR/VR and extended reality (XR) to create experiences that are a unique product, not just a simulation of the real thing.
Enter COVID-19. The pandemic has crippled the live event industry and forced more widespread experimentation with realities. Here is an overview of what’s being done in music, sports and corporate events. We will continue to follow new developments as they occur, as the timeline of live events recovery depends on a variety of factors.
REALITIES IN MUSIC
While the music industry has been playing with the idea of recording performances for VR viewing (with a headset) for a few years, the pandemic has forced more widespread adoption of alternative ways of reaching fans. At the simplest level, VR has stepped in to try to recreate the feeling of actually attending an event. Concerts filmed in 360-degree VR allow audience members to change their perspective to view the main action on stage, or a favorite member of the band or group. Chatboxes and comment sections replace in-person conversations with fellow fans.
Some events go one step further. For example, Wacken Open Air, one of Europe’s largest metal festivals, which normally gets around 85,000 visitors a year, was cancelled due to the pandemic. The organizers devised Wacken Worldwide, a free, weeklong event that would not only feature archived shows from past years but live-streamed performances with XR elements. Bands were shown performing in a VR world where the stages, audience and festival grounds were digital. The result? 11 million views over the course of the week.
For some artists and creators, tech is not just a tool for mimicking or even enhancing the live event experience. It’s a tool to transform it. Capitalizing on technology from the video game world, or even projecting artists into in-game scenarios, as rapper Travis Scott did with Fortnite, gives users the chance to have a unique experience. The 2020 VMA Awards gave artists the option of recording videos outside or in XR (as live performances to an audience were not possible due to COVID-19 regulations). Lost Horizon became the world’s first fully-VR-based music and arts festival, with 4.36 million viewers.
REALITIES IN SPORTING EVENTS
Given the speed and 360-degree field of vision required to fully appreciate a sports game, it’s no surprise that the industry has already developed a range of concepts to use VR and XR to enhance the experience. Juventus has a VR option to view games and extra content. Other tech makes it possible for viewers to project an avatar into an XR environment and “play” on the team. The BBC let viewers watch the World Cup in VR, giving them the impact of watching from a hospitality box.
REALITIES IN CORPORATE EVENTS
The challenges of realities in corporate events are clearly quite different than in music or sports. For example, for a vendor to show a client samples via XR, the detail level has to be almost perfect. It’s also far more of a challenge to keep your audience highly active in the event during, say, a meeting, than it is during entertainment events. Most of the AR/VR/XR that has been successfully used in mainstream events in the past has been targeted towards enhancing surroundings (such as AR art walls) or mimicking reality in ways that streamline the work process or present a cost savings, such as using VR for real estate walkthroughs instead of sending a team there.
Hopefully, COVID-19 will be over in the not-too-distant future. However, AR, VR and XR in live events look set to stay. AR, which bands were using as a ”special effect” even before the pandemic, can add interactive elements to a band’s set. The chance to watch a holographic version of your favorite band in your living room, as some technology has made possible, promises a new level of personalization. Sports fans can watch the game from perfect seats instead of the nosebleeds, or personalize their experience.
Even if no tech can replace the “real thing” of live events, budget constraints and location issues will likely make fans open to the idea as an alternative if they cannot attend in-person.