Black Angels in VR: frustrating, super cool and a possible glimpse at a future for concerts

VR concerts may not be ready for prime time, but this early version left a music writer thinking about what’s next

Posted May 15th, 2017

It’s likely that five years from now, attending concerts via virtual reality will be a thing.  

It’s plausible that superstar artists booking one-off live performances, and big ticket festivals — the Coachellas and the Lollapaloozas of the world — will actually be able to convince web users to pony up cash to take in the experience online.  

Virtually attending a performance by Austin psych-rock titans The Black Angels, presented by LiveNation and NextVR, at First Avenue in Minneapolis this weekend made it easy to see why industry execs are racing to develop VR concerts. But the technology isn’t quite there yet. 

NextVR, a company whose stated goal is to “get 7 billion people closer to the events they love,” is developing content for the Google Daydream View and the Samsung GearVR headsets. I watched the concert on a Daydream View headset paired with a Google Pixel phone. I ran the audio through a Bluetooth speaker, which worked well, but headphones would have been more immersive. The experience was alternately pretty cool and super frustrating.  

There were multiple cameras planted around the club, and each gave viewers a roughly 180-degree view of the scene. If you tried to look outside of the camera’s field of vision, you came to a stock scene of the NextVR virtual lounge. Some of the angles were fantastic. A pair of stage front cameras made you feel like you were sitting on the side of the stage. You could either look up directly at the artists a few feet in front of you, or get their view of the crowd. Another camera placed mid-stage gave a cool view of the drum kit and kind of a weird view of everyone else’s back. 

RELATED: read about The Black Angels and their new album “Death Song” 

Then there was a camera placed high up behind the stage looking down onto the band and out into the audience. This was the least effective view. It forced you to crane your neck to look down. Also, because the performance was a low light situation, instead of giving you a soaring perspective of the concert hall, you got grainy images of the artists’ backs looking out into a void of blackness.  

Throughout the performance, the feed cut back and forth between the cameras seemingly at random. That part of the experience will likely be the fastest to improve as the company gains more experience filming concerts this way. For this show, some of the choices were baffling. At one point they cut away from a good guitar close-up in the middle of a solo and far too much time was spent on the less interesting back of stage angles.  

My guess is the technology will evolve in two ways. For huge artists, there will be a director with a shot list developed in coordination with the artist’s production team. (“Cut to Lady Gaga’s helmet cam as she soars in over the Super Bowl, then jump in with the marching band below her.” “Hit the shot in the center of the glitter bomb as it explodes.”) For mid-size shows like The Black Angels, the experience could be user-controlled. I would have liked the option to select which camera I was watching from and to virtually wander the club on my own.  

The biggest problem I encountered was the gear itself. After about 15 minutes of a steady stream the app gave me an error message with instructions to remove my phone from the headset, close the app and allow my phone to cool or performance quality would be negatively impacted. Soon after the stream became choppy. I didn’t really want to logout for long, so I tried opening the back of the headset and holding the phone in place. That sort of worked, but the stream still stuttered significantly.  

Even after I powered down completely for a few minutes, I wasn’t able to get back into a steady stream for any length of time. As I tried to restart, the camera cuts seemed choppier than ever, which may or may not have been related to the stream. If I had no professional reasons to be watching, I wouldn’t have tried to jump back in more than once or twice.
Overall, there’s a lot of cool potential around the idea of a virtual concert. I enjoyed the experience of watching a show kicked back on my couch and drinking (somewhat clumsily) cheap beverages from my own refrigerator. And while the virtual world in this format is currently quite isolating, I could see a version of the technology that allowed you to interact with other users watching the concert. And who knows, in five years maybe hanging out with friends and everybody wearing headsets might be a thing we all do.  

Right now, from a user’s point of view, virtual concerts are worth exploring, but it feels like a seamless experience is at least another year or two out.