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Crowd engagement technology: from Woodstock to Muse.

Crowd engagement technologies: a set of technologies used to enable an audience to actively participate and/or contribute to an event

Woodstock, 1969.

There are a million reasons why the history of crowd engagement can be traced back to that place and time. One could talk about how 4 businessmen from New York managed to gather the most famous bands in the world, or one could tell about how using advertising on small newspapers, the 4’s managed to gather half a million people, but the truth is that Woodstock made the history of sound.Until that moment, no one had ever been able to make an outdoor concert of that size.

Indoor concerts used sound systems typical of theaters available on the premises, in the most fortunate cases bands had small sound amplification systems.The live sound industry, on the other hand, had just started and was essentially based on the experience of the Beatles’ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium. In that case, the band tried to make themselves heard over the screams of 55,600 fans using the stadium’s amplification system, normally used for Mets game announcements. Clearly, they were unable to overcome the noise of the crowds.

So, the organization of an outdoor festival with more than 200,000 people at the time was, to say the least, a visionary project. This crazy task was given to an engineer from Boston, known on the East Coast for the audio management of some Jazz Festivals: Bill Hanley. Hanley was able to build the largest sound system ever built: 16 speaker arrays in a square platform on 20-meter towers, surrounded by columns of speakers in the hills.

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Bill Hanley at Woodstock

With the arrival of the 70s, on the stages of the big concerts came the psychedelic light shows or liquid light shows. Pioneers of this new technology, were Led Zeppelin who, in 1975, were one of the first bands to use laser technology: they brought on stage a single red laser beam that connected the back of the stage to the audience. The Who’s production manager,  who attended the concert, decided to use the same technology in The Who’s next tour. He bought a more powerful and versatile laser, the Spectra-Physics laser, than Led Zeppelin’s and, from the back of the stage, he manually operated it with a diffraction grading to create a “ceiling of light”.

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The Who’s concert

The 80s were years of experimentation: from Pink Floyd’s flying pig to the explosive cars of the Plasmatics. Certainly in those years to dominate the scenes were, in particular, the concerts of Michael Jackson. We remember in particular two of them. In the first one, Jackson worked with the magician Doug Henning on a special effect in which he seemed trapped in a cage and, after an explosion, reappeared in another point of the stage. And, the 1984 Jackson tour in which the band opened each show with a bright “Star Wars” style lightsaber fight.

The 90s brought two great innovations in concerts: TV and computers. The TVs became an integral part of the concert scenery: they were stacked one on top of the other like big video walls. One of the first groups to use this technique were the U2 in 1992, followed by Madonna. The advent of the computer instead allowed to synchronize the mechanical productions with the rhythmic tracks in a click, eliminating the lag due to the buttons managed by human operators.

In the 2000s, computers and robotics took over. Theme parks, Cirque du Soleil and Hollywood films pioneered the use of computer-generated graphics, video, moving productions and green screens.  The concerts followed their example. Mark Fisher flew Tina Turner on stage with a robotic arm. Daft Punk took advantage of the evolution of laser technology to build pyramids and other spectacular forms of light.

In the last decade, technological evolution has brought great innovation in the event industry, especially for big live music concerts. This sector is becoming more and more smart and both organizers and artists aim to invest in new technologies to stage more memorable shows, full of unforgettable sensory experiences that will leave the audience speechless.

Among the decidedly promising technologies in this field are Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, two modes of interaction between real and virtual world. In the case of augmented reality (AR from “Augmented Reality”) it could be said that is the virtual world to “enter” in the real one, while for the virtual reality (VR from “Virtual Reality”), we are “entering” in the virtual world. Augmented reality enriches the human experience of reality thanks to technological devices, such as smartphones. Through the camera of a smartphone, or another tool capable of using this particular technology, you can in fact observe virtual elements interact with reality. Framing a band on stage with your smartphone, you can take advantage of digital elements that enrich the experience of the concert. For example, you can visualize the lyrics of the song that the band is performing, or see the band with strange masks on their faces or with colorful clothes.

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AR experience in a concert

With virtual reality, instead, it is the user to immerse himself completely in a fictitious world, only apparently real, because it is a specific type of emulation of reality designed to reproduce situations impossible to be lived. Virtual reality then projects the user in any place, allowing him to live adventures and experiences in first person, breaking down geographical barriers and simulating any setting. To do so, some support devices are used, such as glasses and helmets, on which the sounds. The most advanced VR experiences also use gloves, or “joysticks”, equipped with sensors to simulate movements and tactile stimuli.

Another visual simulated technology worthy of note is the holographic one. In 1947, the Anglo Hungarian scientist Dennis Gabor, intent on improving a standard electron microscope, invented the holographic theory. His theory describes how a three-dimensional image of an information pattern encoded in a beam of light can be stored on photographic film. Holograms are photographic recordings that produce three-dimensional images when illuminated with a laser beam of light; unlike normal photographs, holograms show us a three-dimensional representation of the projected image. In 2012, at Coachella (a music festival held annually at the end of April in the United States of America, in the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California) the hologram of Tupac, rapper artist who died in 1996, made his debut.

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Tupac’s hologram @ Coachella

Holograms represent the opportunity to offer the public “impossible” realities. From the creation of visual characters, as the Gorillaz do, to the possibility of seeing artists who left us too soon, as in the case of Tupac.

Holographic technologies have evolved more and more and the number of artists who have been reborn has multiplied, at least in a virtual sense, thanks to the holograms that are projected during performances. The idea is to give life to great events and re-propose music stars on stage. The most nostalgic fans can see their dreams come true thanks to the holograms. They will be able to “see” characters like Ronnie James Dio and Roy Orbison on stage, passing by Elvis Presley, Frank Zappa, Michael Jackson, Maria Callas, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. Who brought holographic technology to the limit surely is Eric Prydz (Swedish DJ, producer and musician) who, with his show at the sixth edition, EPIC 6.0: Holosphere, has created an epic music show. With its first edition in 2011, EPIC is now one of the most incredible examples of holographic technology applied to live music events. EPIC employs hundreds of lasers, digital screens larger than a jumbo jet and colossal holographic effects.

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EPIC 3.0 Photo: Madison Square Garden

Crowd engagement technology has also made great strides on the “fan” side. The most technological supporters have in fact the possibility to interact and enjoy the concerts in different ways. For example, Mixhalo is an app that allows those who participate in an event to enjoy an increased and “more immersive” experience. Simply connect to the app, and put headphones on, to have the opportunity to hear the music as the performer, and also to decide how to hear that music. It’s basically like being on stage with your favorite artist. 

Among the artists who have experienced the app during their live concerts there are, for example, Aerosmith and Metallica: the audience, through Mixhalo, could choose to listen to a specific mix of instruments, exclude the channel with the singer’s voice, turn the volume up or down or jump from one channel to another, and so on. Mixhalo uses a series of antennas, installed inside the venue, able to transmit all the audio channels that are recorded on stage.

Max, in the fourth episode of Italian Tech Speak, refers to some crowd engagement technologies, such as Xylobands, the LED bracelets capable of making fans interact with the live show, or rather: make fans part of the show. The bracelets can flash in syncro with music and create other effects that reflect the “mood” of the even. They have been used to enlighten the shows of many artists, such as Coldplay, Rita Ora, Rihanna.

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Coldplay’s concert

Another example of the use of technology in concerts, cited by Max, is the one of Muse, the British rock band in business for almost 25 years. Muse have filled stadiums and arenas all over the world, creating incredible sets and shows: gigantic stages and screens, flames, explosions, elaborate laser effects, actors and dance troupes, but above all an unbridled use of the technological component.

The maximum expression of this contamination was achieved in 2016 with the Drones World Tour, , in which the trio, with the help of a dedicated team of experts, created a 360° stage set up in the center of the arenas that rotated on itself and from which two long catwalks departed. This resulted in multiple spaces where the artists could move around during the performance and involve the audience to the maximum through light games and video projections that followed the band in their movements. One of the most important scenic peculiarities was the presence of large spherical drones that floated on the heads of the fans under the stage, creating new light games; drones that were programmed differently depending on the song, and were automatically piloted by a dedicated software.

But it doesn’t end there: in their last world tour, the Simulation Theory World Tour, which went on stage in 2019, a stage with LED contours was overlooked by a huge single maxi-screen in high definition. A giant robotic “monster” rose from behind the scenes, dominating the entire stage. And just behind the scenes, before the concert, the most avid fans, through the purchase of a special ticket, could enjoy an afternoon of augmented reality Muse themed video games, created by the band in collaboration with Microsoft.

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Muse’s concert

LEA, as always, took us on a real journey through time to discover the main technologies used in concerts: from the first lasers in the 70s to the hologram shows of the last live shows. In this period when concerts seem like a distant memory, thanks to technology we can continue to enjoy the show, with all the available means at our disposal.

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