Due to space limitations, only 70 people are allowed into 91.9 WFPK(FM)’s “Live Lunch” music concerts. The events are broadcast live on the Louisville, Ky., independent alternative station every Friday at noon.
Until now, the only way to enjoy these concerts was to be one of the lucky 70 attendees or to listen via WFPK’s FM broadcast or web streaming. But things changed the first day of June. When the band Awolnation took to the stage at the downtown Louisville Public Media performance studio that noon hour, a new audience got to see the concert in virtual reality.
Using an Endless Riff VR app that runs on immersive VR headsets made by Oculus and Samsung, WFPK music fans were able to go into a virtual concert hall where Awolnation was playing live. Inside this online space, their avatars could move around and interact with each other, as well as see and hear the band from various locations in the virtual concert hall.
“We’re streaming live on Facebook, and for the first time ... also streaming in virtual reality on the Endless Riff app,” said “Live Lunch” host Kyle Meredith when the concert began. “It’s a little weird saying in front of a lot of live people that we’re in VR. But that’s what going on.”
Creating this virtual world live isn’t easy: Working with Endless Riff, a maker of VR solutions and host of its own “virtual music community,” WFPK had to set up video cameras in the Louisville Public Media performance studio and send those camera views along with the station’s audio feed back via IP to Endless Riff.
In turn, Endless Riff created the virtual concert hall for the Live Lunch broadcast, and handled everything involved with allowing VR users to join Awolnation interactively in cyberspace. Endless Riff has produced more than 175 live VR shows in the past year and a half.
“Our age demographic (35–55) is in line with the audience Endless Riff is trying to reach,” said WFPK Program Director Stacy Owen. “Our listeners are at an age where they have more income, but not as much time or inclination to go out to live shows. Offering concerts in VR gives us a chance to share the artists we love in live performance with those who don’t make it to shows like they used to. It also gives us a chance to expose our service and brand to an audience outside of our local community.”
Endless Riff says it is more than a VR solutions maker/enabler. It is a creator of virtual worlds — a social music VR platform, to use the company’s own words.
By connecting their headsets to www.endlessriff.com, VR fans can roam this social music platform, enjoying VR concerts at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall and events such as SXSW.
The process starts when users log onto the Endless Riff site to see a VR event, and choose their avatars. Currently they choose from a selection of pre-formatted avatars; Endless Riff plans to add customizable avatars available for a fee.
“Once an avatar is selected, the fan enters into their personal RV trailer where they can invite their friends — initially through Facebook — to join them for a private experience,” said
Endless Riff CEO and founder Mark Iannarelli. “From the RV, a fan can enter a ‘venue’ where they are fully able to move throughout the environment and talk to other fans.”
The venue is rendered using 2D graphics and synchronized so that all users share a common wraparound reality, including the live concert video feed and artist interviews. “Depending on the show, there are also 360 degree camera vantage points that can be jumped into on demand,” said Iannarelli. “We will soon be adding 180 degree and full volumetrically captured content (high-def holographic/3D video) to the venues as well.”
Is seeing a band in VR the same as being there in person? No, but that’s the point: VR is an intermediate stage between being there in person and streaming the event onto a web-connected screen. As well, the use of avatars allows users to create and inhabit fantasy personas that can interact with others, allowing them to enjoy an immersive video game experience on the “virtual premises” of their favorite radio stations.
RADIO AND VR
WFPK is a big believer in digital technology and in using the web to increase its listenership. This is why the station started streaming the “Live Lunch” on Facebook Live a year ago.
As well, WFPK’s archived “Live Lunch” concerts are a big hit with its listeners. “While there may only be 100 people streaming during the performance, thousands watch the archived video afterward,” said Stacy Owen. “The artists almost always share the link as well, which connects us to their many fans.”
Owen called the partnership with Endless Riff a testing ground for the station.
“We’ve played around with filming video in 360, but haven’t tried offering anything live in VR before. We love trying new things, and felt this would be beneficial to both parties and a safe way to dip our toe in the water.”
For his part, Endless Riff’s Mark Iannarelli sees the combination of radio and VR as a marriage made in audience-building heaven. “We believe there is huge pent-up demand for music experiences between friends over the age of 30,” he said. “We intend to highly optimize the experience for the particular artist communities, nostalgia and music discovery demand within this group. Genre targets at first are rock, alternative, country and hip-hop.”
Taking a big-picture view, “We see VR as a huge opportunity for radio — and the relationship it still has with fans locally — to transcend current forms of music consumption and recapture curation leadership,” said Iannarelli. “It is a huge opportunity if done right by being social, specific and persistent. Local radio is in the best position to effect a teleportation of a music fan, and people in general, emotionally to another ‘place.’”
Stacy Owen is bullish about this form of radio content distribution and its unique appeal to music listeners worldwide, so much so that she is already planning to expand WFPK’s use of VR.
“If all goes well, next year we’ll invest in the cameras we need to offer our spring/summer outdoor waterfront series in 360 degree VR,” said Owen. “WFPK Waterfront Wednesday is attended by 12 to 15 thousand each month and features national talent like Iron and Wine, The Mavericks and Car Seat Headrest.”
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