Imagine you’re sitting in an intimate, dimly lit club in New York’s Greenwich Village. A jazz band is playing, the audience is clapping along, the woman next to you is sipping a colorful concoction from a long-stemmed martini glass.
It all feels and — above all — sounds so real. But it’s not. You aren’t really in the club. You aren’t in New York. In fact, you never left your house. You’re sitting instead on your own couch, in the comfort of your own living room, watching the show on a virtual-reality headset.
While this might sound like a scene cut from Back to the Future, it’s actually happening: A legendary New York jazz club — Blue Note — is pioneering such virtual events as a new way for jazz fans all over the world to watch concerts and, eventually, other live events.
I stopped by the club to check out how it’s taking performances from the stage to the world of virtual reality — and to see whether that virtual experience holds a candle to watching the real thing, in person with your own eyes.
(What a) virtual world
I met with Blue Note’s Cory Haber one afternoon before the club opened for its evening shows. Boxes of restaurant supplies and liquor still lined the entrance to the venue, ready to be torn open and set up for the evening’s guests.
Haber previously founded a company for which he created 360-degree videos to show off real estate listings. He and his company, Rivet Media, were brought on at the Blue Note to put that expertise to a different use.
The first step in creating virtual-reality content, he explained, is to record and edit it. But you can’t just record the performers on stage and call it a day.
If you want to give people a fully immersive experience, you have to record the entire venue, even the audience, so that viewers at home can point their headsets in whatever direction they want and still see something different within the club.
To do this, Haber set up three 360-degree cameras at the front of the Blue Note’s stage. These cameras record everything happening in the room at once and feed them into the Blue Note’s video-editing studio.
You go to my head
Of course, a jazz performance is nothing without the music. So Haber set up a specialized microphone between the 360-degree cameras to capture the audio from each performance.
That microphone is shaped like a human head; its “ears” record the music as it’s being performed.
Haber explained that the microphone’s strange shape ensures that, when you watch a performance with a VR headset, the instruments being played on your right side sound like they’re actually coming from that direction, ditto the left.
As a result, the music you hear when watching one of Blue Note’s virtual-reality videos actually sounds like it’s being played in front of you. Even cooler: If you spin around while wearing your helmet, so that you’re looking at the audience with the band behind you, the music will still sound like it’s at your back.
After showing me how the club records its shows, Haber walked me to the Blue Note’s editing room, where he explained how he takes all of the content from the three cameras and microphone and edits it into a single video.
The final experience is way more immersive than simply listening to a live album of your favorite band on your iPhone. It really is like seeing and hearing a jazz band in jazz club — one of the best known clubs on Earth.
The shape of jazz to come
For now, Blue Note is offering its virtual performances as 360-degree videos that you can watch on your smartphone, tablet, or computer. While watching the videos, you can swipe across your device’s screen to scan around the room.
Eventually, the club’s videos will be available for virtual reality platforms like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. But Blue Note wants you to experience its performances in virtual reality now, so it is selling Blue Note-branded Google Cardboard-style boxes that act as makeshift virtual reality headsets.
Cardboard serves as a holder for your smartphone, so you can hold it up to your face and use its display as a virtual-reality screen. It’s not exactly the same quality as something like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but it gets the job done.
Currently, the Blue Note’s 360-degree performances includes a concert performed by the Soul Rebels brass band. But in the future, Haber says Blue Note will stream virtual-reality performances live, in real time.
Now that would be a giant step.