How virtual reality completely transformed Beethoven's most famous symphony

Van beethoven LA philharmonicLA Philharmonic OrchestraThe LA Phil prepares to film for its virtual reality app.LA Philharmonic Orchestra

Virtual reality has brought us everything from immersive, first-person looks into Game of Thrones to a new way to play Angry Birds. However, those have been purely 21st century entertainment.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has changed that and put classical Beethoven from the 19th century into the digital world, thanks to its "Van Beethoven" project.

The orchestra has transformed a rented van into a mini traveling LA Phil. But instead of toting along orchestra members, the van has six seats from its famous Walt Disney concert hall and six Samsung Gear VR headsets for fans to listen to the orchestra.

The orchestra's conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, grew up in Venezuela and attended the network of music classes throughout the country called El Sistema. Dudamel wants to bring the same level of access to music to the LA area, and Van Beethoven's virtual reality road show is just a start, said Amy Seidenwurm, director of digital initiatives at the LA Phil.

"People feel it's intimidating or out of reach. The goal is to make it accessible," Seidenwurm said. "It's a natural way to show people what goes on in a concert without replacing the concert." 

 The three-minute recording plays the beginning of Beethoven's 5th Symphony - the "dun dun dun dunnnn" one - and adds some whimsical lights that tell a story above the orchestra.

Van beethoven LA philharmonicLA Philharmonic OrchestraA still from the LA Phil's VR app. The lights above the orchestra are added in to tell a story about Beethoven's 5th Symphony.LA Philharmonic Orchestra

When I tried it out, I didn't really notice the narrative of the light show the first time. As a former musician, I was admittedly more focused on what the orchestra's musicians were doing. Virtual reality lets you record 360-degrees in spaces, so I could swivel from staring at the conductor's face to turning around to look at the front row of violins.

To film the orchestra, eight modified GoPros were placed in a spherical camera so it could record 360-degrees. The camera switches location throughout the symphony, sometimes you are in between Dudamel and the orchestra, or behind the group entirely.

What makes filming an orchestra harder than a typical virtual reality project is that its business is sound. Most VR headsets don't even come with headphones (in this case, we listened to the audio through separate noise-cancelling Bose headphones). 

"In virtual reality, everyone's about the visuals. When you're working with an orchestra, the sound has to be fantastic as well," Seidenwurm said.

To capture the music based on location, the orchestra used ear-like binaural audio recorders. When a listener turns their head in the app, the music will change slightly depending on which way they are facing.

That's only if the listener is paying close attention, though. There's enough to look at during the three-minute recording, including deciphering the light show story, that I barely noticed the fine-tuned audio details until I was looking for them as I listened to it again. 

"For a lot of people, this will be their introduction to VR and to classical music," Seidenwurm said. "Hopefully they'll come out loving both."

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