#1198: AmazeVR is Bringing High-Res, Immersive Concert Experiences to the Quest Starting with K-Pop Band Aespa

Last year, AmazeVR launched their Into the Hottiverse virtual concert experience at SXSW featuring Megan Thee Stallion before taking it on a VR concert tour at AMC theaters around the United States. This year AmazeVR is back with an even more streamlined production and production process with a K-Pop band named Aespa that their aiming to launch their own VR application with later this summer.

They continue to push the fidelity and resolution up higher and higher as they use bespoke and proprietary pipeline with some AI secret sauce that seamlessly integrates their stereoscopic footage into a spatialized environment. It’s a 2D billboarded process that still manages to convey enough volumetric cues as to create a super compelling volumetric experience.

These types of intimate VR concert and musical experiences shows the power of 360 video technologies, especially for the more non-gaming or non-technical audiences who are searching for new and novel ways to connect with their favorite artists and musicians. So AmazeVR is looking to carve out a unique niche for bringing more and more musical artists into VR through their platform starting with their own custom app slated to launch later this year.

I had a chance to catch up with Lance Drake, Creative Director & Director of Content at AmazeVR as well as with Seth Kwon, Head of Business at AmazeVR at SXSW to hear about their latest production and upcoming plans for where they’re planning to take the AmazeVR platform in the future. Keep an eye on their app as it launches later this year as it could be a catalyst to start to bring even more people in to VR.

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. It's a podcast about the future of spatial computing and immersive storytelling. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So continuing on my 24-episode series of looking at the different experiences at South by Southwest 2023, Today's episode is with some creators from AmazeVR, which had another virtual concert experience this year with ESPA, a concert at Kuangya, which was another really immersive, high-fidelity, 360-degree video, but it's a little bit sixed off, and so you have just a lot of amazing integrations of what they're doing to be able to create this really immersive experience and using the frontiers of virtual concert experiences there at Amaze VR so last year at South by Southwest they premiered into the hottie verse which was with Megan thee Stallion and they went on to a whole run and AMC theaters where they would show this as like a concert experience and they're continuing that moving into more of the k-pop realm with a spubs a k-pop band and so they have two songs that they were showing there's gonna be like a four song series and I think they may do a little bit more of the AMC but they're also planning on bringing this into an application for people to see at their homes as well so in terms of like volumetric video this is probably one of the highest resolution and qualities that I've seen and they're doing some tricks on the back end where you are kind of embedded into like a Virtual context, but at the same time you have this billboarded Stereoscopically shot images of these artists, but they're composited on top of this immersive world that gives you this real sense of depth So it's not like a fully volumetric video, but for most folks with an untrained eye They will not be able to tell the difference because it feel like the first time I saw into the hottie verse I was shocked that it was a billboarded experience and So it's very convincing, this illusionary aspect of creating this volumetric, but it still gives you this deep sense of immersion. So they're onto a lot of tech innovations of fusing a lot of stuff together. So it'll be curious to see how they make this leap from what has been kind of a niche XR market into more of a consumer space with either people having these XR devices at home to be able to sell them at a larger scale than having what was last year more of a site-specific concert tour going amongst all these different AMC theaters. So we have a chance to break this down from the creative director and director of content at AmazeVR, Lance Drake, as well as Seth Kwan, who's the head of business at AmazeVR, talking about some of the more business aspects of how they're trying to take a little bit of a different approach for these virtual concert experiences in the context of a VR headset. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Lance and Seth happened on Tuesday, March 14th, 2023 at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:57.458] Lance Drake: Hello, my name is Lance Drake. I am creative director and director of content at AmazeVR based in Los Angeles.

[00:03:05.710] Seth Kwon: Hi, I'm Seth Kwan. I head up business at AmazeVR, dealing with all the business development and also artist sourcing and VR app store relationships, too.

[00:03:16.900] Kent Bye: Maybe you could each give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into what you're doing now at Amaze.

[00:03:22.402] Lance Drake: So my background began in film. I went to film school and have been directing music videos and commercials for the past 15 years professionally. And leading up to the pandemic, I was visual director directing music videos for the band Muse. These music videos eventually were adapted by Microsoft into VR games, which went on tour with the band. Having the experience of my work being taken into VR blew my mind and that passion was ignited from that moment forward. Seeing people not just experience my work in two dimensions, but go inside of it was something that I felt like was missing my whole life. So from that moment of seeing fans experience my work in a new way, I knew I wanted to make the pivot into VR. So I finished my tenure with the band with an IMAX feature that played theatrically and then linked up with AmazeVR. I was blown away by their tool set and where we are taking the technology and I've been with this company for the past year and a half developing the next generation of our tools and the future for VR at large.

[00:04:38.239] Seth Kwon: Before joining AMAZE VR, I was actually born and raised, studied and worked in Korea. And I worked at the multiple startups. So right before joining AMAZE VR, I worked at HyperConnect, which is recently acquired by Match Group. I worked there as a business development manager and the strategy manager. And yeah, since I really love XR and VR, I thought that this is going to be like future of media. So like, you know, I just joined AMAZE fully to LA right before the pandemic.

[00:05:08.665] Kent Bye: Yeah, last year at South by Southwest there was Into the Hottiverse, which I got a chance to see and do a brief interview about. And yeah, it was really quite stunning to see what felt like a very volumetric but was like sort of a 2D billboard that was able to have such a high fidelity of an experience that felt very volumetric, but I guess there's a lot of tricks that were used in order to give that spatialized feel. So maybe you could give just a bit more context if you were a part of getting this look and feel and optimized on the Quest 2, but to push it to the limits of what is possible and to have it look as good as it does.

[00:05:42.602] Lance Drake: So I represent mainly the creative and the X-Factor coolness of our company, working directly with artists to basically take the magic of what people's expectation of what a 2D experience would be and bringing it to 3D. And I think that represents the future of VR in general, is that everyone, especially new adopters, want to have that feeling of, I was looking at my phone and now my phone is over my eyes. And so that's been kind of the MO and what we've been chasing at AmazeVR, building worlds in Unreal, which is nearly photo real, shooting subjects with a proprietary stereo camera and proprietary AI keying tools that we own and control, and allowing artists to merge themselves and stereo content into a 3D world, and it's near seamless. And that's the magic, is that personal connection of people connecting with their favorite artist and being fully emerged in that world. And there being no barrier between them and their favorite artist and the world that they're in. You're not seeing the scuffs on the floor. You're not seeing the scaffolding of the lighting. This is a fully built 180 degree, at this point, stage. of their design and our design, and I'm very excited for the future.

[00:07:13.232] Kent Bye: Maybe you could give a bit more context as to the Hottieverse from a business perspective, because it premiered here last year and then went off to have a tour, I guess sort of similar to a concert tour, but in different theaters. So maybe give us a bit of an update as to how that went.

[00:07:27.377] Seth Kwon: Yeah, before doing this VR concert business, Amaze did like Netflix-like platform. Actually, we had a video platform and VR app stores, giving the tool set to the content providers, and then ourselves had our original content team. But back in like 2017, 2018, actually the market wasn't, you know, grow like not super fast. And also there's some limitation to deliver best content to the end users. So we actually decided to go to offline business. So we were seeing like Dreamscape and Devoid and those companies got a lot of investment and they're doing pretty good. So we were researching how we can do offline and we decided to narrow down to music and performance and thought about, okay, how we are going to deliver this content. Actually, We were almost close to signing the cool space in LA to build a brick and mortar VR theater. But we decided to capture more fans because fans are everywhere. So we don't want it to keep us in LA. So first time we built a tour bus. to actually like artist tour bus but in terms of like scalability so the bus is a little bit limited so we decided to go to the AMC theater to make a partnership because like they're quite a standardized and they're everywhere and so actually we developed a whole new touring model for VR and it was super challenging like we run 140 headsets at the same time but the technology enabled that because like in 2020 the quest 2 has a release so we could use a standalone with pretty good gpu and chip set so that allows us like to bring that kind of model. Yeah. So, okay. I mean, I know we sold out every tour tickets and, you know, made a good kind of impression to the Megan's fans and they went up pretty good. But also in the meantime, the Quest 2 has the sales really good. And now, I mean, VR market, online VR market has started to open. So now we're more focusing on the online market. So it's to more capture the VR users everywhere.

[00:09:49.212] Kent Bye: Yes shown a sneak peek clip last year at South by Southwest and just to see the excitement and people watching it I didn't personally get a chance to see it But I can imagine that like I've seen some VR experiences where it was at Sundance and we watched like a whole documentary together in the same room, but I had already actually seen the documentary and watching it a documentary that didn't have like any Interaction from the audience what it actually felt exactly the same of like watching it by myself or watching in a theater full of people but I imagine that this concert experience actually is like you feel the presence of people around you because there's a bit of like Excitement and people exclaiming and so or making noise and so I feel like that I haven't experienced that but I feel like that's probably gonna be a key component of having that sense of that broader social experience while you're being transported visually but feeling like you're a part of something larger and

[00:10:35.602] Lance Drake: Speaking to that, I think a lot of companies right now are chasing the social factor, which is really critical in VR and is the differential. I think what's interesting with our companies, we're actually chasing fidelity and quality first. And I think that's the big turning point for our company. And the lightbulb moment we're seeing in a lot of people's eyes this year per last year. A lot of people Didn't really understand the format of a VR concert last year this word metaverse and all of these things were kind of gray area This year when people have tried our new show. I'm literally seeing a light bulb moment in people's eyes where they're now understanding the tool, like what we've created and where the technology is heading. And circling back to what Seth said when I first joined this company and something I'm very passionate about with us is that this company was founded by engineers, by tinkerers, by people who see problems and they fix them. They figure out how to link up a hundred headsets in a movie theater and stream it So everyone gets a shared experience. But then as the market changes and we learn lessons from that, we're now pivoting to the new problem. And so we've really made some really fast moves in even the past year and a half I've been in to keep up with the market and keep up with the technology. and I cannot even imagine what we're going to be doing in the next two years, because some of the tool set that I'm personally using with the projects that we're creating, if and when that ever launches, will truly change the world.

[00:12:15.848] Kent Bye: All right. Well, I'm excited to see where it goes I mean that it sounds hyperbolic But I've seen what you've been able to produce so far and it is actually some of the highest fidelity Stuff that I've seen so I'm curious I'll see it and I'll know it in my body when I experience it But I believe we are on the cusp of a lot of changes I wanted to talk about this project here Maybe could give a bit more background context as to you know how this project came about the band that you're featuring and the Design aesthetic that you were trying to take people into this other world to feature their music

[00:12:43.047] Lance Drake: Yeah, so this represents our first joint venture. This is with Music Management and Conglomerate SM Entertainment. And we've partnered with them to host and shoot a variety of their talent. And this project is with Aespa, who I would say is one of the top four K-pop groups in the world. And what we love about them is they have such an amazing, rich lore in terms of digital avatars and almost living and being in the digital space. So for their fans to go into our show is kind of living the dream for them, that immersion that I was talking about earlier. And so this partnership represents the future of hopefully a lot of partnerships that we're going to be making and what is really special about it is that we've created a stage for SM Entertainment where a variety of their acts will be performing in and this will be a place for fans to come and see a variety of acts perform in and when our Metaverse app launches in late June early July fans will be able to purchase a VR concert and experience it for themselves. And we will continue to work with SM and many other labels and music management and artists, and this will be a place within our app, come to AmazeVR, to continually purchase and experience new content from their favorite artists.

[00:14:16.778] Kent Bye: Yeah, and since you are a Korean, I'd love to have you give some commentary on the K-pop as a Korean phenomena, but also like an international global phenomena and some of the business implications of that from your job.

[00:14:29.202] Seth Kwon: Yeah, I think while I'm here and I moved to LA and the K-pop made like sort of good impressions to the music industry too. So actually, you know, this kind of news made like the other, you know, music industry people excited and K-pop is kind of like a whole business package so actually music people are trying to learn you know how they're doing the business and also the hype the management of BTS they're actually start to acquire other music companies so it's kind of like emerging and also it's more like organized as a business so we are kind of very and also they're pretty advanced to utilize the technology. For example, SM, they've been kept doing like virtual, you know, effects and the virtual, you know, videos and the metaverse thing. And also BTS, they did a cool experiential event in Las Vegas when they came to do the concert. Actually, the whole city has changed to the purple color, did an experiential pop-up. So, I mean, since like, I think the K-pop itself is very fit to this medium like XR era and the metaverse these kind of things so yeah we just keep doing this type of thing in the collaboration and also we will try to how we can apply what we've learned with the K-pop artists to the also other global artist projects too.

[00:15:50.807] Lance Drake: I think the thing that's really exciting and amazing about K-pop is the genre of it and also the fandom and in a way K-pop is I mean, don't hate me for saying this, but it's almost the marvelification of music, where a character like Winter, who's in Aespa, she's almost the Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. of SM and of Aespa, and these are real people, but they're playing characters, they're playing rock stars, they're playing pop stars, and there's storylines, and it's rich, and it really represents that immersion that fans want. They want to live inside the music. And so we have the perfect tool for that.

[00:16:36.416] Kent Bye: Maybe you could talk about your process of working with ESPA and trying to take all their IP and their stories and how do you start to translate that into both worlds, but also what characters they're going to be playing and the specific experience that you're showing here at South by Southwest.

[00:16:52.260] Lance Drake: So this is just, you know, story one of what we're creating, and actually what we're showing is only half of the show. This project that we're presenting today is seven minutes of the 15-minute show, and not only does it represent a stage, stages and platforms for them to perform, and within Kuangya, that's their world and their environment, and this is the first time that their fans will be able to visit that reality within VR. So that's really exciting for us, Yeah, but also this represents the new format for our shows, which an AmazeVR concert is going to be two songs in interlude with a personal moment between the artist to the fan, some kind of user upgrade and interaction that unlocks new controls for the last two songs. So every AmazeVR show is going to be about 15 minutes long, at least at launch, and then we might be mixing up the format, we'll see.

[00:17:52.997] Kent Bye: So is it in last year you had more of a model? We were going to AMC are you moving into more of like anybody that has a quest headset is going to be able to Get the amaze VR app and start to do purchases and watch this at home. I

[00:18:07.295] Seth Kwon: Yeah, we're just going to focus on because like now the Quest 2 has been sold like 20 million and you'd be expecting more with new headsets and the more, you know, the headset providers, you know, get into this market. So we see maybe you can just, you know, it's quite enough, you know, the user base to just focus on online. So we're going to release our new app with more, you know, content. Actually, we have five to six content lineup this year to include K-pop artists and also U.S. artists, global artists. So we're going to release our app to more like metaverse feeling, but more like kind of platform app to contain, to release, you know, periodically of those kind of concert later this year. So the users will be able to watch our concert, you know, all over the world. So yeah, we're really excited to see that.

[00:18:56.902] Lance Drake: And so at launch we will have five to six artists and the trajectory of any startup is really about becoming more productive and more velocity. So then moving into 2024 we will be doing a show a month and then doubling that from there on forward and so forth and so forth. And a big key factor between this show and what we did last year with the Hottieverse was, Hottieverse was a very expensive shoot. Just the principal photography was very expensive. I won't go into the exact number, but this show, same, you could argue even higher fidelity, cost one-eighth to shoot. And what else? Post-production process is faster too. Yeah, and the timeline of post-production went, it was a nine month life cycle to finish the Hottieverse. This took two months. And we're going to continue to shrink that down as we continue to iterate. And that's the velocity you need to work in the music business and also just in general at this point.

[00:19:59.218] Seth Kwon: Yeah, I mean, our goal, ultimate goal is like, you know, once, you know, VR is like a mainstream product, mainstream medium to all people have their own headset. So we wanted to be like, people are experiencing music in VR. So we wanted to replace the Spotify, we want to replace the Live Nation. So this scalability is really important. So that's why we are really trying using the AI technology. to reduce the lead time and cost to produce more and more content. Eventually, we will open this tool set to the music creator so they can just make the VR concert for them. So also more content beyond our platform or metaverse. So that's what we're targeting. So that's why we're doing hard, you know, improving our pipelines right now.

[00:20:44.362] Lance Drake: And then you move from every artist in the world, big and small, having their own AMAZE VR show, to then almost anyone on the planet creating any genre they want. You have to think about a company, let's say, like Apple or Meta, especially Apple, I could imagine. I don't know anything specifically, but you have to imagine a lot of these big tech companies, they have to create a product and it has to solve an issue. So if stereo video becomes even more popular, if an iPhone launches with a stereo camera, where are we viewing this content? We're going to be needing to view this content on a headset. And I think stereo video is going to become more and more popular moving forward within headsets and looking glass and this technology as it continues to expand. I just saw a company here that worked on the hydrogen phone for RED, and now they're coming out with a stereo like iPad. Yeah, exactly. So stereo video represents the next wave of where major manufacturers are going to be moving. And we're at the forefront of that in terms of our AI tools that no one else has, and being able to take subjects and put them into any environment.

[00:22:03.027] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you each think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and the future of music, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:22:12.655] Lance Drake: Oh, man. I think it's just total immersion. And I think that's also what K-pop and this show represents in the future, is that the fan will be able to step into a world of their band, and their favorite album will never end. Oftentimes, especially, and I come from the music industry, music cycles come and go. So a band is working on a new album, and then that album ends, and they move on to the next album. Albums in the future won't end, for instance Pink Floyd's The Wall. You'll be able to go inside that album and that story will iterate and continue to change. Storylines, fan fiction, all of these things are going to grow out of the seeds of the band's IP and their identities. So imagine a band like Aespa They'll be able to live forever in our application within AmazeVR, and their storylines and their shows will continue to live on. One of the things that I like to tell artists that I meet is that you have to imagine once we shoot your show, your grandchild will be able to revisit you at 25, at the height of your artistry. and see you for who you were then and what a gift to the world. Imagine if we had been given access to revisit Motown 25 and watch Michael Jackson Moonwalk for the first time in stereo video. Imagine if we had been able to see Madonna 1984 performing Like a Virgin at the MTV Awards. These things we will be able to freeze forever within our technology and technology forever moving forward. And I truly believe that is the future.

[00:23:57.247] Seth Kwon: For me, I really wanted to see the main artists. That means actually when any media came up like Spotify, YouTube, TikTok, there's also certain like artist type or artist format that's coming up. So also we really wanted, there will be like some artists, their creative really fit to our concert format. So we really want to see that type of artists. Yeah, so they will, yeah.

[00:24:23.410] Lance Drake: I think that's an amazing point. You have to look back at technology. Think about who was the star of YouTube, Justin Bieber. This is a kid who filmed himself in his bedroom and then started playing arenas. He was able to harness the magic of YouTube and just performing covers and harness that technology and wield it. You can only imagine an artist with our tool set. who is building their own shows from the ground up, how far they'll go. And I think that that is such a great point. Seth, you have to think that there's artists even now post pandemic, some of the biggest artists in the world are famous because of TikTok, and they haven't even toured yet.

[00:25:05.230] Kent Bye: Well amaze VR has got some really high fidelity amazing stuff already that's showing here and we'll be coming out to the masses here soon and thanks for sitting down and giving your Retrospective look of where things are have been and where they're going in the future So yeah excited to see where you take it all. So thanks again for joining me. So, thank you.

[00:25:23.777] Seth Kwon: Thank you so much Thank you

[00:25:26.415] Kent Bye: So that was Lance Drake. He's the creative director and director of content at AmazeVR, as well as Seth Kwan, the head of business at AmazeXR. And they had a piece there at South by Southwest called Espa, Concert at Kuangya. So I've heard different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, just like last year, when I saw Into the Hottieverse, there was a way in which that this virtual concert experience I could see is like a nice bridge into more of a pop culture, mass culture consumption. It's something that is highly entertaining and deeply immersive. If you're a fan of these different artists and you get a sense of like really being co-present with them, in a certain sense, I mean, you're not actually like interacting with them in any way, but it's like more of a being at a concert-like experience. Yeah, they have a really nice integration from what looks like a fully volumetric experience, but is actually kind of stereoscopically shot and billboarded and composited in a way that gives you this deep sense of immersion and being transported into this other world, but, you know, have this really high resolution depiction of these different artists. You know, most of the different volumetric video that you see is a little bit lower resolution, but this is super high resolution and even higher resolution than they can even display in the context of these current generation of headsets so as time goes on they're going to be able to keep up and show even more pixels that they're capturing in these different experiences so that's also exciting just to see and to have it all kind of integrated all the kind of AI magic on the back end to be able to do that and a whole pipeline that is getting more and more optimized for them to start cranking out more and more of these different types of experiences so really interesting to hear about some of the more business aspects some of the more creative aspects and you know, as we move forward, will this be the next platform for artists to be discovered? We already have like YouTube that served as a platform, you have Spotify, but also TikTok is around for discovering new artists. And at this point with AmazeVR, they're just like focusing on these established artists. And so at some point, maybe it's their aspirations to create this next generation of folks to be able to create their own immersive type of experiences and to show them on a platform like AmazeVR, if they're able to build up enough of a platform and an audience to be distributors of that type of music. So that for me indicates an eventual end goal of pivoting into more of a user-generated content to more of like a YouTube model or like TikTok, but right now they're just more of distributing these established artists on their platform. But their vision is to grow this out in the future and to a much more robust platform and to find new ways of creating these immersive interactive experiences with these different artists and so yeah and especially as this k-pop band of aespa and the different types of artists and creators they're going to be able to bring on the platform so very curious to see where they're going to go in the future in the terms of intellectual property and what they're doing with their platform called amaze vr and Yeah, if it may actually be an acquisition target for someone like Apple or Meta to be able to have some of these different experiences that are supported by one of these different bigger platforms, or if they're able to be a disruptor in terms of using and starting with the high resolution video and create their own path and create their next music platform destination for AmazeVR. So I think there is a potential for it to do that. But, you know, I think there's going to be a diversity of other folks that are also doing that, and they're not going to be the only player in town, especially if there's going to be a compelling market for what they're doing there. I would hope for a robust ecosystem of competition and not just have AmazeVR be the total monopoly owner of all these different things. Yeah, I feel like it's going to be a thing where we want to have many different options and platforms for a broad range of different folks. And yeah, keep an eye on AmazeVR for where they go in the future in this space. So, that's all I have for today, and I just want to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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