AmazeVR is a VR Concert Platform that premiered part of an experience at SXSW that they will be taking on a 10-city concert tour called Megan Thee Stallion: Enter Thee Hottieverse. I had a chance to speak with AmazeVR’s Head of Creative Eric J. Krueger about the social VR and interactive aspects as well as their unique volumetric compositing of different techniques that gives a really high-fidelity resolution within the Quest. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and entertainment within the experience, and the social dynamics of watching this with 100 other people in a movie theater will no doubt provide a visceral first-time VR experience for a lot of people. Their tour will be starting in Los Angeles on April 5th, and then headed to San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Charlotte, Washington DC, and ending in New York City with the last show on July 3rd.
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So continuing on of looking at some of the different Southwest Southwest 2022 experiences, today's episode is with Eric J. Kruger of AmazeVR, their VR concert platform that was showing one of four different songs that they're doing in a VR concert series featuring Megan Thee Stallion. So they had a piece there called Megan Thee Stallion, Enter the Hottiverse at Southwest Southwest, which ended up being a piece that had a lot of people that were at Southwest Southwest come in and enjoying quite a bit. Their plan is to actually take this on a 10-city tour from April 5th to July 3rd and show it in AMC theaters with 100 different people at a time. They showed me a video clip of some of the different early testing, and I was like, oh, wow, this is going to be really quite interesting as a social experience. Kind of like going into a theater and watching a performance, but then having 100 other people that are there, as well. And so they have different ways in which they're using the social VR and the hand tracking technologies to give this sense of social presence within the experience in the first part. And then they go into this fusion of different volumetric capture techniques that are really quite intriguing. It looks really good. I was looking at it. I was like, wow, this looks a lot better than I would expect it to be looking within a real time volumetric environment. So doing lots of really interesting tricks to be able to create this highly polished, immersive VR concert experience that's going to be launching here on April 5th in Los Angeles. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Eric happened on Tuesday, March 15th, 2022. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:45.743] Eric J Krueger: My name is Eric J. Kruger. I'm the head of creative over at AmazeVR, a VR concert platform and production house.
[00:01:53.406] Kent Bye: So maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into VR.
[00:01:57.209] Eric J Krueger: Sure, sure. I went to school for drama and theater and started producing there and then eventually moved out to Los Angeles because I wanted to get into TV and film. And back in 2017 when VR was really starting to percolate, I wanted to merge those two worlds and VR felt like the right place to do it. So I joined with MazeVR back in 2018. We developed interactive content, narratives, we became a video container and distribution platform, and then eventually moved into the music performance space.
[00:02:28.291] Kent Bye: Okay, so yeah, maybe you could give a bit more context to this project that you're showing here at South By.
[00:02:33.870] Eric J Krueger: Sure. We're showing Megan Thee Stallion, Enter the Hottiverse, our first VR concert. We teamed up with Megan Thee Stallion early in 2021 to develop a four-song concert series that has a unique distribution method in which we will be taking it around to 10 different theaters nationwide, partnering up with AMC. There will be about 100 headsets in those theaters in which people can experience Megan Thee Stallion and these VR concerts together. After that, we'll start looking into online releases.
[00:03:04.012] Kent Bye: So yeah, we're here at South by Southwest and the version that I saw here, there's a lot of like NPCs that are there where you can see other people that you're sitting next to is the idea that when you're in the actual experience, you can see the people around you as well.
[00:03:17.025] Eric J Krueger: Correct. We actually did a field test just last week where we had 100 people. You interact within groups of four. going through this 6-off experience and then eventually transitioning into the concert. What you saw at South By was a version we created for South By Southwest. We realized we wanted to get a lot of people in to see it, and we just felt like doing NPCs and avatars would be the best way to do it. But in the actual experience, those will be your friends or the people you came with.
[00:03:41.764] Kent Bye: So there's one song that we saw here, but it's a four-song series total that people will see when it's actually put out into the world?
[00:03:47.705] Eric J Krueger: Yes, the song we showed here was the third song of the four that we're doing. Overall, the experience will run about 30 minutes.
[00:03:54.418] Kent Bye: Okay, so technically there seemed to be like a blending of a lot of different aesthetics and styles like you're in a virtual world and you have the 3D models but you also have like a volumetric capture but you also have what I presume was a little bit of more motion capture but then with avatars with dancers and so you're kind of blending and blurring all these kind of volumetric capture techniques and maybe you could just explain the technical aspects of what we actually see when we receive this experience with the volumetric capture and the dancing and the background context.
[00:04:21.782] Eric J Krueger: Of course. So we have a very unique approach. We use our proprietary cameras that are stereoscopic, shoot on a green screen with the main talent, and we can export a 16K file. So that's why you're getting a very high fidelity in the VR space with the talent. We actually teamed up with Megan's background dancers to capture four unique performances, which is where that motion capture comes from in the avatars. Overall, we wanted to predominantly feature Megan, and it allows us to continue to make that image as high-res as possible. So that's where you got the avatars mixed in with Megan. It also allowed us to apply some of the creative choices that Louis and Megan wanted to apply to this project with those background dancers and the environments we were creating. So it's a bit of a mix, but overall, we use proprietary software, cameras, and then the Unreal Engine to bring it all together.
[00:05:14.948] Kent Bye: Okay, so in the stereoscopic capture, is it just billboarded or is it actually volumetric then?
[00:05:21.016] Eric J Krueger: It's just billboarded. So we've got two lenses that work there that our team developed, but the volumetric feeling that you're getting is just due to the resolution of those cameras and the movement that we create in the camera itself.
[00:05:34.709] Kent Bye: Okay, I thought it was quite effective. It was actually hard to discern that it wasn't volumetric just because it did feel volumetric, but I didn't try to break it, I guess, by moving your head around. If you tilted your head, would you see some, like, breaking of that effect?
[00:05:47.008] Eric J Krueger: Yeah, I imagine you would. But, you know, I think you not feeling the need to move your head speaks volumes to how the content was put together. That we are designing this content for non-native VR users. We're designing it for audiences that maybe have never experienced it for the first time. So, overall, we have put in dynamic camera moves to help with that head motion and create a dynamic experience so you can sit back and just enjoy.
[00:06:12.297] Kent Bye: Yeah, when I came out, what I asked was like, if you used one dancer with four different times, but I was told that it was actually the four different dancers, but they actually use the same avatar representation for that dancer. So I'm curious to hear about that creative decision to not put different slight variations of the avatars to be able to give the sense of the other unique individuality of each of those dancers.
[00:06:35.304] Eric J Krueger: Yeah, of course. I think first and foremost why we wanted to use four dancers was to capture the unique performance. I think with the choreography that Laurieann Gibson put together, having those four unique performances goes a really long way, especially in the song that you saw. You know, there's even a time where it breaks off where you have a unique performer and then the three behind. As for what you're asking about, how we styled them, that came from more of the initial creative, that when we first looked at this project, we wanted to develop kind of a 90s simulation, maybe early millennium, and where software was still on the cusp of figuring itself out. and exploring what it could be. So a lot of the decisions that led us to having avatars that didn't have differentiation came from that. Limitations within the tech while meeting opportunity in the creative, I suppose.
[00:07:24.674] Kent Bye: And in the background it looked particularly high-res in the sense that I don't know if it was rendered in real-time or if it was again another kind of billboarded technique to be able to pre-render stuff out to give it this higher resolution. But is that running in real-time or is it a 2D video that has a stereoscopic effect?
[00:07:39.540] Eric J Krueger: Yeah, overall it's a bit of a mix. So in the first part that is rendered out in real-time and then as we move into the actual performance we're mixing two different styles. There is a pre-rendered component and then there is a real-time component.
[00:07:51.903] Kent Bye: Okay, yeah, I thought it seamlessly blended all together. I know that as more sophisticated VR observer, I'm sort of noticing the different technical aspects of how all these things are going to be muxed together in a certain way. So from that technical perspective is really impressive and also just the performance and the song and the the dancing, it felt like one of those music videos that you're just kind of transported into. And so I'm curious to hear, starting as a concert platform and starting to work with Megan Thee Stallion, if there's other artists that you're starting to expand this out to in this collaboration with AMC, I'd love to hear a little bit more about that because it seems like that's a pretty key part to this experience is that this may actually be a lot of people's first VR experience, especially in a social context in public.
[00:08:35.761] Eric J Krueger: Yeah, absolutely. And that's kind of by design. We wanted to reach out to people who maybe hadn't experienced VR before and introduce them into this world that we know and love. To answer your questions, artists, you'll just kind of have to wait and see. But I can say that we are chatting with a few artists of a similar level, and we have been approached by a few. So a lot of good conversations happening. We're aiming to announce that in the next few months. As for AMC, that was a wonderful partnership that was kind of bridged by our head of distribution, Hannah Hembree, that she had reached out to them and a few other chains. AMC was the most excited by exploring this potential opportunity. But now that we have started working with them, some other chains have expressed some interest. So our hope is to make this something that is not uncommon, that we can get VR or at least XR experiences into traditional theaters and continue to expand and this medium.
[00:09:30.549] Kent Bye: Yeah, so maybe you could describe the structure of this piece, the different acts or the different interactive components and in the video. And when you show it, if you're going to have a similar version that is going to be distributed out with the 30-minute version, what that structure is going to be. But what we were shown here, what happens in the beginning, in the middle, and the end of this piece?
[00:09:49.066] Eric J Krueger: Sure. So when we're showing it at AMC theaters, the overall narrative we're trying to tell is inviting audiences to come in and unlock a gateway to the Hottieverse and experience it in whichever city they're in. So you will come into theaters with a bunch of other people who are excited as you are. and get into Headset once the Hottieverse Gateway has the potential to be unlocked. You will live in a 6DoF environment with the people you came with and interact to unlock the Hottieverse. Once it is unlocked, you will be taken into the show. in which you will experience a VR concert with four songs and interludes and animations to hopefully have an incredible experience with an artist you love. And then shortly after, we have a small post-show and that's kind of the whole experience. How that relates to what you saw is we just have the ending component that would unlock you into the Hottiverse. You get pulled in and then we kind of take you to the third song where you can experience what the overall show would look and feel like. We chose that song because it has the largest mix of the components. You mentioned the mo-cap dancers, the environment, the live-action Megan. We have some of those elements in some songs, not in others. This was a good collection of everything that would be in the show.
[00:11:09.621] Kent Bye: So was there a part that's in the onboarding or the intro that wasn't shown here at South By then?
[00:11:14.363] Eric J Krueger: Yes, yes. There is actually a fairly large component in which you could be in the 6 DoF experience as little as 5 minutes, as long as 10 minutes. There is a more somewhat gamified aspect in which you and your friends can kind of compete to work together and unlock the Hottieverse. There are several rounds, so it's a little bit of a game while also moving that narrative forward.
[00:11:38.767] Kent Bye: Is that because in order to onboard 100 people into VR, it takes time, you can't get everybody in VR at once?
[00:11:43.829] Eric J Krueger: That's a really good assumption, and yes, I think it does also serve that purpose, but overall it is to entertain while everyone gets onboard and allow us the time to give special attention to people who might need a little bit more onboarding.
[00:11:57.526] Kent Bye: So I just went to the Mirror Shot show last night that had like 50 Gear VRs that they were actually bringing people out and passing them out and having people put them on. Are you imagining that you're going to give people the Oculus Quest headsets and they're going to go sit down and then put them on? Or that you pass them out once they're seated? Or how do you do that distribution of the VR hardware?
[00:12:18.102] Eric J Krueger: Well, this is something that our business team has worked a lot on. In fact, in Los Angeles right now, we're doing a number of field tests to really refine that process. What we've got it down to is we will have employees at each of the showings that will be passing out the headsets, onboarding people, and then taking them back as the show ends. So it should be really easy, really seamless, not a whole lot of responsibility for the hardware for the audience.
[00:12:43.446] Kent Bye: Yeah, Ernest from AmazeVR sent me a video of some of that field test with a theater full of 100 people with VR headsets on and they're kind of paddling their hands. So there's a hand tracking component here where your hands are being tracked, which I think when you're in a social context that actually gives a lot of social presence with other people to be able to gesture and see other people and for them to react to each other. But to have those hand interactions kind of shoot these little balls that are, you know, kind of unlocking the Hottiverse as it were, I feel like that's, as someone who's played a lot of VR games, it's like, that's not something that's super, because I was just playing with an NPC, I could see how that getting people to be embodied in a way where they're able to do a light level of interactive agency in a way, especially for people who have never done any VR before, but for seasoned VR gamers, it's not necessarily that compelling of a game mechanic, but I could see the use for people and how enjoyable it was to see 100 people doing all that at the same time.
[00:13:40.425] Eric J Krueger: Absolutely. I think it hit on its head that this is designed for people who have maybe never tried VR before. And so one of the early decisions we made was we wanted to get away from the controllers and have very easy interaction. So what you kind of experienced was the best and cleanest way to onboard someone and invite them into this world and interact with it in a way that It felt fun. It felt like it could be easily transitioned without any frustrations. And yeah, I suppose that they could just enjoy without too much training or tutorials or onboardings.
[00:14:13.340] Kent Bye: One of the issues that I think some of the exhibitors were experiencing here on the floor at South by Southwest was that there wasn't enough light to be able to maintain like a guardian. So if you had that type of interactivity meeting the sixth off, that the stationary boundary would be a pretty good way. Is that what you're using as just a, the standard stationary boundaries so that when they get in, they don't have to worry about setting the guarding. Because that ends up being a really high friction aspect for public showings. If somehow you lose tracking and you have to reset that, it's going to be a huge pain. So have you developed custom software? Are you working with Meta to be able to refine that? Or maybe you could explain a little bit. Because for anybody who's used the Quest, even just moving across the room, sometimes you have to reset everything. So I can imagine that would be a big pain. But I imagine you have some solution for that.
[00:14:59.491] Eric J Krueger: You are correct. We started partnering up with Meta. We are using Oculus for Business headsets. And what that allows you to do is create a larger and more custom boundary. So effectively, the boundary for any of these headsets at these AMC theaters will be the entire theater. And we have attendants there to make sure no one gets out of their seat or could be put in any potential personal harm. But that allows us to seamlessly create interactions where the boundary isn't as much of a factor. So overall, that was our solution. And it was something that we also grappled with and thought about so that it did not take away from the overall user experience.
[00:15:36.341] Kent Bye: And what are the different COVID precautions for a show like this? I imagine that, you know, we're here at South by and there's a whole range of different ways that people are thinking about the pandemic and how to remain safe. But what are the ways that you're both ensuring people are safe within the experience, but also all the other protocols to be able to ensure that it's a sanitary process?
[00:15:56.585] Eric J Krueger: Absolutely. First and foremost, that is something that we want to make sure that people feel safe when they come into the theater. And so we are always following the local guidelines for any theater that we go to on this tour. All the headsets get cleaned between every showing. We actually have two different versions so that while one version might be showing, one version is being cleaned. If you saw the booth at South By, you saw that process currently in action so that there was never a consumer-to-consumer transition for any of our hardware without a cleaning process in between. As for masks and facewear, since we are playing in a lot of different environments, different cities are going to have different expectations and restrictions. We are meeting cities where they're at. Overall, we are practicing safety first, but that as, hopefully, things transition between spring and summer and the conversation around safety guidelines and restrictions, continues, we will adjust with the current guidelines.
[00:16:56.904] Kent Bye: OK. And is there a date in which this first Welcome to the Hottieverse is going to be made available?
[00:17:02.866] Eric J Krueger: Yeah. We launch in Los Angeles at the AMC Theater at The Grove, April 5th. And then we will be playing at select theaters throughout the United States every weekend until June 30th through July 3rd in New York City. More information can be found on AmazeVR of where those cities are and which theaters specifically.
[00:17:22.674] Kent Bye: And for you, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality might be and what it might be able to enable?
[00:17:28.917] Eric J Krueger: Big question. I'll frame it from a content point of view because I could keep you here for a while just talking about that. But from a content point of view, I think the dream for me is to create experiences that everyone around the world can have simultaneously and be able to share in no matter where they are. With that, I think the idea of these VR concerts is that every artist can have a VR concert with a maze in which they can overall launch a new album, a new song to a live audience or an audience that sees this experience before they go on tour or simultaneous when they are going on tour and we can be a component of that. As for where VR could go, I don't see this limited to just VR concerts. This could be theatrical shows, this could be Broadway, this could even be its own medium with narrative VR films or animations. So I see a world in which this medium continues to grow artistically and the audience comes to meet it. I think what I'm excited about exploring is that feeling of presence. You know, when we go to see concerts or films, one of the biggest cells for that is the feeling of presence. The idea that you'll laugh harder, you'll cry harder, you'll get more scared if you go see it with an audience. And I think how Amaze is trying to make that work right now is by inviting people into the theaters and experiencing this in a shared space where you can hear each other, enjoy it together, and hopefully that helps bridge the gap between how we currently consume content and where content can go.
[00:19:20.519] Kent Bye: I certainly enjoyed getting a sneak peek of the Hottiverse and all the different ways that you're fusing all this together. And yeah, based upon seeing that video of all those people, it looks like it's a lot of fun for people to do in a big crowd, a big group, and to kind of hear the ambient reactions of the audience. It's something that I haven't quite experienced in a way of having a big group experience that way, that feels like a group experience. But this feels like it's starting to perhaps mimic some of those things. So anyway, thanks for taking the time and unpacking it all.
[00:19:47.559] Eric J Krueger: Well, thank you so much, Kent. I appreciate you coming to check it out.
[00:19:50.701] Kent Bye: So that was Eric J. Kruger. He's the head of creative at AmazeVR, and they're doing a VR concert platform and a 10-CD tour of Make it the Stallion, Enter the Hottiverse that is starting on April 5th, 2022 in LA. Then they're going to San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and then ending in New York with their last show that's happening on July 3rd, 2022. I have a number of different takeaways about this interview. First of all, when I first saw this enter the Hottieverse, it was kind of like, oh boy, what is this going to be? But I was actually impressed by the actual immersive experience of it. I could see, after seeing clips of a hundred people within a theater all doing this paddling motion with their hands, kind of like dribbling a ball, but you're tracking your hands and you're shooting these little balls out, be able to collaboratively, with the four people that are next to you, shoot and hit things. This was an abbreviated version of what the full half-hour experience was going to be. I think they skipped the introductory part and the onboarding, and then they just threw you in. They had NPCs rather than having something that you were with, the people that were next to you, just because it was kind of a rolling thing where they're trying to get as many people as they could. through this as a demo, just to get the word out. So I imagine that this may be some people's first VR experiences. And right off the bat, you're in this instance that you're only with four people for the first introductory part. And so imagine looking over to your friend and being able to wave and kind of interact with them in different ways. And so you're in these immersive environments, but you're also engaging with a small set of people that you may have come with or people that happen to be sitting next to you. And then it goes into this immersive video, which is a composite of different types of techniques. So everything from translating a fully immersive VR environment into maybe stereo pairs to be able to have like a rendered look that's really high quality, something that goes above and beyond what you may be typically See on a quest, but it still feels like a volumetric experience as you're watching it I mean I didn't try to break it and suppose you could have if you tried to move around and maybe saw what was actually happening But I didn't feel the desire to and I think most people as they're watching it I'm not gonna think to try to move their head in weird ways like that So you're receiving what feels like this kind of music video with Miguely stallion there's her dancing in this big giant volumetric capture and It's again captured with two stereo cameras, and then it's billboarded, but again the volumetric nature of it feels really good It kind of tricked me actually I thought it was a volumetric capture it looked really high quality it felt like a little bit like a Microsoft Mixed Reality capture and then they had like these motion capture of the dancers where those seem to be a little bit more volumetric where they were doing the motion capture and then using the same avatar representation, which I would have maybe liked to see a little bit more of a variation just to differentiate it because it did seem like the exact same dancer, but apparently four different backup dancers from Mega Thee Salien. And yeah, it just all came together. I thought it was a lot more impressive technically than I was expecting it to be. If you're in one of the cities, I think it's worth checking out, especially from the full half-hour experience and what that's like to be in a room full of 100 people seeing a piece like this. I have had an opportunity to see an immersive cinematic VR experience within a theater, but it was a little bit more of a serious documentary. I didn't tell any difference between watching it by myself and watching it in the big crowd. Something like this, when people may be reacting to the content and it's all synced up, comedies but also the concert experience. What is it like to go to a concert while being in VR and being in a room full of people? Are you able to get a sense of being in the same place as these other people? That would be the thing that I wonder. To what degree are you able to get a sense of a full crowd of people watching this experience? Now, this is something that you're sitting next to other people. And so again, you're only having four people, but they're kind of treating it as a concert. They're touring through these different cities and they're going one at a time. They're not doing multiple cities at once. And Eric said that they may consider releasing this remotely after they're done with their tour. This is a location-based, site-specific type of experience that you have with other people. Who knows where they're going to take it in the future. I'm curious to see if this is the type of experience that actually draws people out to have some of their first immersive experiences. I was surprised to see how many people from outside of South by Southwest were coming in to see this as an experience. They were pretty busy most of the time, so they were able to generate a lot of buzz and a good crowd. You know, it's kind of out of the way and you kind of have to make your way to see this. So the word had gotten out enough for people to come and check it out at least. So anyway, excited to see how this continues to unfold. And I'll include a little clip that one of the folks from AmazeVR had sent to me that once I saw that clip, I was like, oh, I got to definitely talk to these folks because what they're doing is really quite interesting. This could be a thing that starts to get VR out into these new audiences. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listeners-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.