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A wonderful new world: how virtual reality breaks the musical ceiling

They are developers, artists, creatives or gig manager. They are music lovers and tech enthusiasts. They all swear that there is nothing like a live concert surrounded by friends nursing a lukewarm beer, but they also believe that the experience of listening to music could be improved by new technologies, including virtual reality. A complementary way for artists to reach their audience, not a threat. A logical evolution that sounds like a revolution too, and a strong card to play for the Walloon region.

For a generation that grew up watching video clips on MTV, it is hard to argue that music is only about listening. From a sensorial point of view, yes, the basic act of listening to our surroundings is indeed something that we feel using our ears. But it is about so much more, and it has always been. Music is to be listened to, but also watched, felt and, in a way, touched.

When we go to a music festival, it is the smell of the grass – often the mud – that we remember. A full experience in which technology is often denied or seen as unworthy. We all know some folks that see tech and music as two opposing forces. “Music is a gut feeling, something that you have to feel deep inside”, they say. Well, that’s true. But what if new technologies could help us push the experience a little bit further, like radio did for our (grand)parents, video for the Y generation -without killing the radio stars- and Internet for the Millennials?

We asked four experts– Arnaud Meulemeester (Business Developer at Dirty Monitor), Hervé Verloes (Director of the XR production at Poolpio), Pierre Dumoulin (Singer and songwriter), Ward Cannaerts (Head of marketing at Ancienne Belgique) – their take on the subject and their answers are full of hope. No, virtual performances will never be a substitute to live concerts, but the generalization of VR devices could change the way we consume music. For the best.

Welcome to a wonderful new world.

Music first

Whether they belong to the music world or to a geekier one, all the experts emphasise the role of music in an immersive experience, while also highlighting the importance of producing a balanced experienced. Arnaud Meulemeester, Business Developer at Dirty Monitor – a Walloon start-up specialized in creating indoor experiences based on video projections – is unequivocal. For him, music is responsible for 80% of the emotional impact: “If you have to choose between visual or musical impact, you have to pick the musical one. Weak visuals coupled with great music could work, but the opposite won’t.

But of course, it’s only when they both work in harmony that the magic happens. “VR concerts are not traditional concerts. Broadcasting them is not enough, organizers should offer something new; an exclusive experience”, says Pierre Dumoulin, singer and songwriter.


Discover Roscoe, Pierre Dumoulin’s band

The recipe for a successful immersive experience? Balance, according to Hervé Verloes, director of the XR production at Poolpio: “It is about reaching as many people as possible, on as many platforms as possible. It is about interaction between an artist and the audience. It is about getting high-quality video and sound. All of that wrapped up in a “Wow” experience”.

But the ultimate secret is to keep a cool head as far as  technicalities are concerned, continues Hervé Verloes: “It is better to insist on artistic direction, even if it means downsizing the technical scope of an event. Any difficulty, even a small one, can be crippling. If an organizer tries to impose technical features that go against his project, it will have an impact on the fluidity of the project, and it will reflect badly on the user experience.

An observation shared by Ward Cannaerts, head of marketing at Ancienne Belgique, the leading concert venue in the heart of Brussels, for whom “poor technology and usability are dealbreakers”. What he realized over the past months is that interactions are key. A lesson he learned the hard way: “I have experienced several VR concerts during the past few months. I ended most of them after 15 minutes because of the lack of interaction. It’s fun to have a 360° view from the stage, but that trick doesn’t work for me.”

Beyond the (musical) horizon

When discussing the potential of VR, there are indeed many safeguards worth keeping in mind. A new reality on which COVID-19 and a year of lockdown have only lifted part of the veil.

Thinking about past exhibitions implemented by Dirty Monitor, Arnaud Meulemeester immediately remembers the one on Vincent Van Gogh, where visitors were virtually immersed in letters exchanged between the artist and his brother Théo. Based on the scenery included in his masterpieces, the start-up was able to create a virtual environment where it is possible to put yourself in Vincent Van Gogh’s shoes.

Everything is remotely possible now”, says Pierre Dumoulin, “we have reached a point where there is almost no technical constraints anymore”.

A new trend largely acknowledged by the industry, confirms Ward Cannaerts: “Based on the experiences we are creating with Ancienne Belgique and the trends in the surrounding countries, it is clear that immersive experiences will soon form a strong industry of their own.” A one-way global revolution according to Hervé Verloes, who laments the catastrophic consequences for the cultural industry: “We will not come back to what the situation was before COVID-19. For us, it is a period full of opportunities. We helped our partners remain visible by virtualizing some aspects of their activity. Thanks to digital tools and immersive experiences allowed by VR, we helped some of them create virtual spaces where you can meet and share in ways almost similar to events people used to physically attend.”

More than an alternative solution, virtual reality allows us to explore new ways. “We can do things that would be impossible if we were live. Tomorrowland gave us a good example. With VR, it is possible to invite people underwater, on new planets… basically wherever we want”, concedes Arnaud Meulemeester. And the best news is that the devices that allow us to perform such experiences are only coming to maturity, with a more general adoption by the public on the fringe.

A (not so) Virtual Reality

Fifteen to twenty years from now, what would the virtual world look like? According to Arnaud Meulemeester, mass adoption could be a real deal breaker: “I can imagine that every household will have its own immersive room, like they have a bathroom. Free from the physical constraints such as wearing a helmet, customers will use that room to immerse themselves in various environments. They will have the opportunity to watch news with the speakers, watch a video clip from the inside…”. From a shorter-term perspective, the implementation of 5G network coverage will be a game changer too, explains Hervé Verloes: “devices will no longer need heavy hardware equipment to work properly. It will be a revolution!”, not to mention the innovations directly linked to new ways of recording such as 7D or 8D, highlighted by Pierre Dumoulin.

What is 8D AUDIO? Put your headphones on and listen to this example.

A whole new world that we can almost touch, even though there is many a slip twixt cup and lip. So far, the main challenge relies on the cost of devices that while decreasing, remains high, while helmets are not convenient for extended use. “The cost of AR and VR devices is a barrier to mass adoption” regrets Hervé Verloes, while Arnaud Meulemeester also highlights the discomfort inherent to the use of physical devices such as helmets: “beyond the price, helmets are not adapted to people wearing glasses and can cause motion sickness. A total immersion would only be possible if we can remove hard devices, and if we use our own eyes to watch changing surroundings.”

From VR to WR

When discussing as significant technological developments as the ones above, what can be done at a local scale is often ignored. However, in the virtual quest for a better immersive world, the Walloon region definitely  has a role to play. After years of lagging, Wallonia is increasingly positioning itself as a leading region in the artistic use of immersive technology. A beneficial wake-up acknowledges Arnaud Meulemeester: “Today, I think we are among the pioneers.” A new status earned thanks to Walloon entrepreneurs’ agility, but which has little to do with geographical location, according to Hervé Verloes: “Wallonia is as competent as any other place in the world. It is only by aiming at excellency and by showing a regular capacity to adapting fast that Wallonia can guarantee an appropriate working environment for Belgian talents”. Talents that are often able to punch above their weight, says Ward Cannaerts from Ancienne Belgique, who highlights the catalyst function of Wallifornia MusicTech: “The past year, I have been truly amazed by the impact of Wallifornia MusicTech and its ecosystem. Yes, Wallonia has a role to play in Europe, but also worldwide.”

Learn more about Poolpio’s latest projects here

Wallonia, land of opportunities? Definitely, and why not the place to host our expert’s wildest dreams when imagining the ventures they wish to see arriving soon. “We would like to see more projects like the ones we are working on (…) XR stages, VR projects in the field of education, human resources and professional training, as well as faster VR developments in gaming” wishes Hervé Verloes, while Arnaud Meulemeester dreams of start-ups developing Blade Runner-like immersive spheres allowing people to physically immerse themselves in VR environments. Projects that would be based on empathy and interactivity, according to Pierre Dumoulin. As for Ward Cannaerts, he would welcome more companies such as Dog Studio or Poolpio, with whom they are currently building a virtual Ancienne Belgique to be released on Yabal.io in March. May their wishes come true.

Discover AB’s March 2021 Black History Month livestream program here

Best in Show

Aside from the interview, we asked our experts what their most unforgettable immersive experience was. Curious? Find out their answers hereunder:

  • Hervé Verloes (Poolpio): “It was a JVG performance in Helsinki. In my opinion, that virtual concert was the most accomplished project I’ve ever seen. It was a perfect combination of technological evolutions, virtual reality and live performance. It left almost no one aside; it gathered 20% of the Finnish population who watched the livestream. From an organizational point of view, all the objectives were reached: reaching as many people as possible, on as many platforms as possible; establishing a strong link between the artist and its audience while offering a waw experience without compromising with high-quality video and sound.

  • Ward Cannaerts (Ancienne Belgique): “The digital ‘Around the World’ edition of Tomorrowland in July 2020. I was completely baffled by the virtual world they had created on such a short notice. A big shout-out to the mystical set of Charlotte De Witte by the way.

  • Pierre Dumoulin: “ICO’s virtual concert during the 4th edition of Wallifornia MusicTech. I was at Reflektor during rehearsal and I got the opportunity to both observe what happened behind the scenes and to watch it from home. It was amazing to see how ICO gave everything like it was a regular concert, even though the room was empty.

  • Arnaud Meulemeester (Dirty Monitor): “I remember our collaboration with the artist Molécule for the “-22,7°C” at the Montreal SAT. The exhibition was about creating an ice and water immersive atmosphere using both sound diffusion and video projection. Arte made an immersive experience out of it, and our role was to turn it into an autonomous exhibition. I think this kind of experience is the most immersive because it combines a festival, performances, visuals and an artistic vision in order to create a unique journey.”