In 1996, Chicago rock band Wilco released an album called Being There. That's an unintentionally accurate descriptor for the thinking behind a project they were recently involved in — the band appeared in NPR Music's first foray into 360 video and virtual reality via video concert series Tiny Desk.
Tiny Desk is NPR's most popular video series. The gist is that bands come into the NPR office in Washington, D.C., and play a short set at the desk of NPR's Bob Boilen, who also co-hosts the All Songs Considered podcast. So far, more than 500 bands have played at Boilen's desk. The shows range from the very intimate, to outright wild—in 2010, vodka-swilling, gypsy-rock band Gogol Bordello's frontman Eugene Hutz ended up dancing on one of the office desks.
The series has also had its experimental moments. When NPR moved buildings last year, OK Go, a band known for intricately-choreographed music videos (their most recent one was filmed on a zero-gravity airplane) came in and played through the tear down and reconstruction of Boilen's desk from one building to the next. There's even a Roku channel, just for the series.
So, it's not surprising that the idea for a Tiny Desk Concert in 360 degrees would eventually get floated. Part of the reasoning o use Tiny Desk as the guinea pig, NPR Supervising Video Producer Mito Habe-Evans said, is that virtual reality is best employed in taking viewers somewhere they'd like to go but couldn't otherwise.
Tiny Desk Concerts are attended by NPR staff and a few lucky friends, she said, and a recurring comment from fans is how much they'd like to be there in person.
She also described the role intimacy plays for NPR and how they found that feeling in the headset experience.
"That suits NPR really well because radio is an intimate experience and what we try to convey with all of our video products is our sense of intimacy," Habe-Evans said.
Habe-Evans and NPR's Nick Michael first started talking about 360 video a year or so ago.
The initial hurdle for NPR, as it is for many companies, was budget. Michael said it was tricky—you need a proof of concept in order to get the powers that be excited, but in order to create a proof of concept, you need gear and an investment of time and/or money to create that proof of concept in the first place.
That's where the partnership with RYOT, a media organization that makes 360 videos, came in—NPR could lean on them for some guidance, expertise, and equipment to get going.
In the time that Michael and Habe-Evans spent researching VR, they watched plenty of concert experiences. Michael said they wanted to do something more than music presentation.
"Beyond the first 30 seconds of novelty, there really wasn't much else that you wanted to see and unless you were in the middle of a stage and there were pyrotechnics and there's so much other stuff going on, it's difficult to maintain that level of interest," Habe-Evans said.
They came up with the idea of using Easter eggs for viewers to find during the video—in other words, they set up a game of I Spy. Throughout the video, at approximately 30-second intervals, viewers are told to find items that reference different Wilco album covers.
For example, Wilco's self-titled album features a camel with a pink party hat. When that prompt appears, you can catch Michael walking in the background of the crowd with a camel mask and pink party hat. Or, for the 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which features Chicago's Marina Towers (which are known locally as the corn cobs), you can see someone in the audience holding up to ears of corn.
"[The Easter eggs] give the viewer reasons to keep looking around, exploring, and experiencing new corners and perspectives. And to that effect, I think there is an instructional element for the first time viewer," said RYOT co-founder Bryn Mooser.
Some of those Easter eggs are easier to find than others. Habe-Evans said it was a lesson in learning how resolution, display, and capture can limit ambitions for 360 video.
"When you're in the room, everything seems quite visible and you want it to be subtle—and it is incredibly subtle to the point that it's a bit difficult to spot some of these things," she said.
Another challenge, Michael said, was learning to plan for a video that doesn't follow the rules of what they've come to refer to as flat video. There's no LCD to view the more-or-less finished footage as it's recorded.
"You've just got this little ball of cameras stuck somewhere, so the closest you get to a reference is test shoots and downloading cards and test stitching," Michael said.
There's also no way to use the visual language or tools of video that most video production professionals are used to—no swapping out lenses for the right shot, no using different focal lengths.
Instead, they have to make new considerations for elements like where the seams of the video will be. Because a 360 video is a composite of multiple camera angles, those angles have to be stitched together. Sometimes, those stitches can look odd or create visual disturbances, which ultimately break immersion for the viewer. So, those making 360 video have to consider where the seams will be. For one angle, Wilco took up about 180 degrees. The team, of course, would not want to splice frontman Jeff Tweedy in two, so the seam would have to be somewhere unobtrusive.
RYOT gave NPR the option of four or seven-camera rigs. NPR opted to use four-camera rigs. Habe-Evans said one benefit to using more cameras is getting more coverage, and more flexibility in placing seams. However, the more cameras you have, the more seams you have to stitch, and stitching is labor and time-intensive. They also decided, in the end to use only two of the three rigs, taking the two best angles they'd shot.
Habe-Evans said they hope to keep experimenting.
And as for Wilco — watch until the end for Tweedy's money quote: "I might be hallucinating, but was there a woman standing here with two ears of corn?"
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Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.