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At This VR Concert, The Audience Drifts Through Space Together

Can VR be a collective experience? The artists and musicians behind the Hubble Cantata think so.

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This Saturday, as a part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, the Prospect Park Bandshell venue will be newly surrounded by a series of strategically placed speakers. On stage, a 100-person choir, a 20-piece ensemble, and two Metropolitan Opera stars will be performing a space-themed cantata.

In the audience, roughly 6,000 people in Google Cardboard headsets will be on their own private journey through the Orion Nebula—scored by the music and experienced together.

At least that is the vision of the team behind The Hubble Cantata, a live musical performance that takes viewers through the cosmos from the perspective of the Hubble Telescope. The singers and musicians on stage will be performing a cantata that was written by composer Paola Prestini in 2013 and inspired by images from the telescope. For the last five minutes of the performance, audience members can put on a provided Cardboard headset and play a VR film called Fistful of Stars, which will take the viewer floating through time and space in coordination with the music.

"We’re setting out to redefine the community VR experience," says Fistful of Stars director Eliza McNitt, a young filmmaker whose movies tend to focus on space, science, and the environment. Pristini reached out to McNitt in January about directing a film to go along with The Hubble Cantata, which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a few years ago, that would make audience members feel as if they were in space visually, as well as sonically. Although she has never created a VR film before, McNitt thought the medium was more than appropriate for the science-themed work. "Right now VR is perceived as being alone in a room with headphones," she says. "With The Hubble Cantata, we’re building a 360-degree 3D soundscape that will fully immerse you."

For that aspect of the performance, McNitt and Prestini—who is also creative director at the new N.Y.C. music venue National Sawdust—reached out to the sound engineers at Arup to design a soundscape at the venue. They engineered a speaker system that will envelop audience members in sound to make the performance more immersive. When attendees arrive at the venue in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, they'll be given a Cardboard headset and told to download a free app, also called Fistful of Stars, from the app store on their phones. The app is essentially a platform that the film can be downloaded onto, eliminating the need for streaming—an impossible feat for 6,000 people at once. Once the performers instruct attendees to put on their headsets, a film narrated by astrophysicist Mario Livio, who worked on the Hubble for 24 years, will play.

This isn't the first time that VR—typically seen as an individual, and even socially isolating, experience—has been used for a collective performance. In February, Chris Milk, an artist and CEO of virtual reality technology company Vrse, hosted a collective viewing experience at TED2016 in which Milk premiered a VR film to 1,200 attendees. The difference, McNitt points out, is that Milk's event cost $6,000, whereas The Hubble Cantata concert will be completely free. Thanks to the inexpensiveness of Google Cardboard headsets and most apps, VR is accessible to virtually anyone. And with support from foundations like the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, BRIC, and others—as well as an ongoing Kickstarter campaign—the team behind The Hubble Cantata is able to bring the experience to anyone who wants to participate.

Next, they hope to tour the performance through other cities and show it at film festivals, before developing an app with sound that would make the piece accessible worldwide. If you're in New York City, you can catch their first performance on Saturday, August 6 at 7:30 p.m. at Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn.

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