Director Chris Milk was tasked by Lincoln to reimagine the concert experience, and reimagine it he did. Milk’s audacious project, Hello, Again, featuring Beck, is an incredible interactive concert experience that’s best viewed through the Oculus Rift. I recently had a chance to put my head inside Hello, Again to witness a concert like I’ve never never seen before. The result of Milk’s work is revolutionary in more ways than one.
Hello, Again is perhaps most accurately described as an experimental concert. It shot in February 2013 by director Chris Milk to be distributed as a non-VR interactive web-browser experience which you can see here (those on mobile can get an idea with a traditional video of the concert). Milk, however, has a private version of the experience for the Oculus Rift which he was kind enough to let me try when I was out in the LA area at E3 just two weeks ago. I had seen and been impressed with the web-browser version previously, but it doesn’t even come close to the same experience seen through the Oculus Rift.
Milk dreamt up the concept of a spherical venue with concentric revolving sections. At the center is a small rotating stage where Beck performs. Hanging in the very center of that stage—right at Beck’s eye-level—is a 360 degree camera and audio rig for recording spherical video and spherical binaural audio. Surrounding the circular stage is another 360-degree audio/video rig on a dolly which runs on a circular track. Beyond that are several sections of audience, rotating opposite Beck thanks to the largest motorized turntable in the US, followed by another circular track with a 360-degree audio/video rig. Encompassing the entire venue in the outermost ring are some 170 musicians arranged in unique sections—orchestral, jazz, chorus, and more, along with plenty of unique instruments, even a saw and a theremin!
As Beck and the musicians played an arrangement of Sound and Vision by David Bowie, Milk’s custom 360-degree audio/video rigs were recording the action from three different vantage points. The first is stationary at Beck’s eye-level at the very center of the venue. The second and third, as described above, are at varying distances from the stage and circle the stage as the song unfolds. As a viewer, you can swap between each vantage point on the fly with a click of the mouse. In addition to being able to look in any direction from each of the vantage points, the spherical binaural audio surrounds you in an amazingly convincing 3D soundscape.
Donning an Oculus Rift HD Prototype early in the morning, I was transported instantly from Milk’s quiet office to a filled concert venue, right next to Beck. The experience of being fully surrounded by the audience and, further out, the musicians, was incredibly powerful. The music began slowly with a call-and-response segment between Beck and the instrumental sections; each time a section would play, it would light up according to the amplitude of their sound. At the end of this call-and-response segment, Beck and all of the musicians jumped into a beautiful chorus of Bowie’s Sound and Vision.
Hearing a Concert Like Never Before
This was a concert experience unlike any I’ve ever seen… or heard. In a normal concert, the musicians are all on stage in front of you and all of the sound is coming from one direction. In Hello, Again, unique sounds are coming at you from every direction. Milk’s spherical binaural audio rig, which looks like a prop straight out of a psychological horror film, does an incredible job at capturing this truly surround-sound soundscape. As you turn your head to see the various instrumental sections, you can clearly and accurately hear each section in both direction and volume. When switching from the center camera to the outer camera, which rolled around its track directly in front of the musicians, I could clearly hear specific instruments—like the tambourine, which caught my attention—and pinpoint them easily based on audio position.
The spherical fading from one binaural audio stream to the next was a bit rough around the edges, but even so it worked phenomenally well. It was really fun to watch Beck from the outer ring as I rolled by an interesting instrument that I could hear behind me, then decide to turn around and look to see that particular instrument being played up close. When I was looking at the instrumental sections, the instruments closest to me were clearly the most prominent in volume, while the others were audibly further away, just like you’d expect in real life.
Hearing all the sections build up to a climax toward the end of the song was a truly remarkable experience—a stark contrast to eventually removing the Oculus Rift and returning to a quiet and still office.
Dare I say: the virtual reality version of Hello, Again might have been better than the live event, thanks to the inhuman ability to transport instantly between vantage points.
Milk’s experimental concert is an extremely successful and innovative use of live action virtual reality. Hello, Again was shot all the way back in February 2013. Milk told me that at the time “the technology to do 2D full spherical
barely existed.” The proprietary spherical binaural audio technique was invented specifically for the project. More than a year later, we’ve come a long way with this sort of technology; Milk says for his next project he’d like to shoot in 360 + 3D.
Milk told me he’d like to release the Oculus Rift version of Hello, Again but there are difficult licensing issues surrounding it. Fortunately, Milk says he’s “working on a number of live-action VR projects at the moment,” though he’s unable to announce them at this time. Hopefully his future projects will be distributed in VR for all to appreciate.