LA Philharmonic hits the virtual reality road

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is tapping into virtual reality technology with a first-of-its-kind performance. It has captured a virtual reality performance of perhaps the most famous work in classical music, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which will tour around the city.

The Symphony promises to transport Angelinos to a place many have never before visited—either aurally or in the physical world. The immersive, 360-degree, 3D virtual reality experience is set in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA and coincides with the Phil’s Immortal Beethoven Festival next month.

The philharmonic’s Director of Digital Initiatives, Amy Seidenwurm, described the project’s goal to “We’re taking it all around the city, mostly to people that we think don’t come here, whether they’re not interested in classical music, because they haven’t had a chance to check it out, or they don’t have the financial means or transportation to get downtown,” she said. “The idea is just bringing the concert hall to LA.”

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A custom-fit truck is doing just that by installing actual chairs and carpet taken from the Disney Hall facing a mural of the arena to set the mood even before people slide the Samsung Gear VR glasses over their eyes and put on the headphones.

The experience is playfully dubbed VAN Beethoven in a nod to composer Ludwig van Beethoven and also because of its mobility, allowing for “concert” stops over a five-week period at parks, fairs, schools, and festivals throughout the city beginning on Sept.11.

Performance Review

The performance promises to elevate the nascent art form of virtual reality by incorporating a dynamic performance by the LA Phil. was among the first to demo the experience, which centers around the maestro, conductor Gustavo Dudamel. His charisma in leading the orchestra literally jumps out at you and he also serves as a beacon for those wandering eyes checking out the stage, seats behind you, or ceiling above you. Virtual reality newcomers can also look for Dudamel to regain their bearings.

As for the virtual reality musicians, they are larger than life. From those first four notes the music soars in your headset but if you stare at an instrument or group of them you’ll notice isolated notes.

That’s because the production uses state-of-the-art audio technology called binaural sound, which allows the viewer to customize the experience.

“The sound adjusts itself when you move your head,” said Seidenwurm. “So you get a slightly different balance of players in the orchestra if you look at Gustavo (Dudamel) versus if you look at the violins versus if you look at the back of the room. I think that helps you feel very present and within the experience yourself.”

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She explained that one pair of special 3D microphones shaped like ears were used, while more than 40 others were placed around the hall for true surround sound. As for the video, it was captured in 3D for VR by four stereo-paired GoPros that were fitted with special, wide-angle lenses.

While the video is not as crisp as a large-screen HD TV, the views are quite compelling for a screen that sits inches from your face but puts you in the orchestra and even on the stage at times. It uses virtual reality technology from Oculus, which is owned by Facebook. The consumer version of the Samsung Gear VR headset is used to view the Symphony.

Your perspective changes half a dozen times during the video, allowing you to take in the spectacle from the audience seats, sit between the conductor and first chair violinist, or visually explore your surroundings; even looking behind you.

The production and road show are not inexpensive, costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The project got off the ground thanks to generous grants from the Irvine Foundation and LA Phil board member David Bohnett. He was an early Internet pioneer, founding GeoCities in the ‘90s, a site which went public and eventually was acquired by Yahoo.

Bohnett, a past chairman of the Phil’s board, says he wants to see “how people respond to the technology, classical music, and the concert experience. There isn’t anything out there like this. It will help inform our knowledge base for future projects.”

The tech entrepreneur and arts patron says this is only the tip of the iceberg for virtual reality. “The educational and training from virtual reality, it’s virtually limitless, and so are the potential applications for this,” he told

He also says the VAN Beethoven experience may see an extended run back at the Disney Hall after the tour ends. “We’re not playing all the time so one thought is, we set up an area in the concert hall and people can experience a performance anytime,” he said.

The VAN Beethoven experience will also be available to almost anyone as a free app called Orchestra VR in the Oculus and Samsung Gear VR app stores starting this month. It claims to be one of the first arts-focused applications to launch on VR headsets, reaching music fans around the world.

“Lots of people are a bit intimidated by classical music; merge that with a really cool new technology (and) we hope that people who maybe didn’t know they love classical music now know they do and that there’s a renewed interest in a really great art form,” said Seidenwurm.