For many of us, festivals are a tension between wanting to document every moment and not wanting to live our lives through a lens. Each year thousands of "dumb" burner phones make their brief comeback for the festival season, but plenty of smartphones are still finding their way in too, and at Coachella, festival organisers are now coming up with ways to take advantage of that.
Last year, Coachella shipped 130,000 Google Cardboard headsets to attendees ahead of the festival. By slotting in their phone they could access behind-the-scenes footage and 360 views of the Coachella arena. It was a bit of a novelty next to the first 360 livestreams that also took place that year, from bands including Run the Jewels, but a neat surprise nonetheless.
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"We got a lot of feedback from fans saying it was their first time experiencing virtual reality," according to Gopi Sangha, director of digital strategy at Goldenvoice - the mastermind company behind Coachella. Encouraged by the feedback, this year Coachella upped its game a little with AR, teaming up with company CameraIQ. "Augmented reality has been knocking on our doors for four or five years now pretty consistently," says Gopi. "but I think it was really about the technology maturing and third-party vendor market maturing within AR, so that they would be able to offer their services to us."
Once again, several weeks before kickoff, ticket holders received a gift package containing their wristband, but this time with an AR twist where they could use the smartphone app - with or without a Cardboard headset - point it at the box, and watch a mini festival come alive before their very eyes. It was a cute idea, and again, a first taste of augmented reality for many.
And there was more to come: the festival teased some additional AR "Easter eggs" that would be scattered around the grounds this year. These mostly revolved around the structural art installations that have become a headline act of their own right, not to mention the famous glitter shark, plenty of palm trees, and a few other things. It's partly playing on the fact people are always whipping out their phones at the festival, but most probably won't have a Google Cardboard with them, and some of the AR features can still be accessed without a headset.
"Ultimately the goal was to give a bit more narrative to the structural art pieces on site, and we thought AR could be a cool tool to deliver that," says Gopi.
This is the first time the organisers have toyed with augmented reality and it's something that will likely grow, but for now it's VR that holds the most value. 360-degree video has played a bigger role in this year's festival, with more acts being streamed live to be enjoyed from home with a VR headset on. "We stand by the fact that Coachella is a 360 experience," says Gopi. "There's something that 2D cannot communicate."
Gopi talks about bringing "the dimensions of a show to a global audience" that may have never attended IRL. There's also a Coachella Explorer app that lets you roam a 3D model of the entire grounds in VR, should you want another way to feel it out from the comfort of your own home.
The other side of the initiative is about bringing new ideas to people who are in attendance, before, during and after the show in a way that doesn't feel like it's totally missing the point of being at a music festival. "Our goal is how do we introduce VR to the fans, how do we introduce AR to the fans," says Gopi. "What we're trying not to be is some sort of tech exhibition or conference or product demo."
And yet on another edge of the festival, HP was striking fear and confusion into the hearts of tripping festivalers at The Antarctic Dome, a planetarium-esque concave under which hundreds of people sit on beanbags and watch an immersive 360-degree film above them, before going into another room, strapping on a HTC Vive, and recreating the experience themselves.
Again, it's a fun way of letting people taste VR for the first time. But right now it's the 360 videos that people will most likely return to, offering a more immersive way to experience or relive performances, and as the technology gets better the idea of experiencing an entire festival from your own home, headset on face, might become that bit more enticing.
AR will probably grow slowly, but has the most interesting long-term game for festivals like Coachella. "Ultimately I think in the long-term road map there are AR features that interact with performances and art installations," says Gopi. "For us it's a pilot to find features that fans find engaging and useful, and down the line we'll find the way to deliver more of those interactions that are complementary to their experiences."
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