While the barriers to entry may seem as high as the stakes, behind all the Wall Street hype and Silicon Valley technical jargon are companies like VRLIVE — lesser known firms humbly charging ahead and changing the world. To peer into the possible future, I sat down with Dann Saxton, Founding Partner and Head of Content at VRLIVE — a company that keeps its head in the clouds and feet on the ground by combining the latest in 360° video and virtual reality technology with traditional broadcasting chops and ties to the live music industry.
It’s VRLIVE whose expertise in the emerging field will be providing the technical infrastructure for Universal Music Group’s new mobile app VRTGO. The app, free for iPhone and Android users, gives consumers “global, 3D, 360°, live-streamed virtual reality performances.” VRTGO could very well be the tip of the escapist iceberg that has been spotted hovering just beyond the horizon for so long.
Eric Cullen, Contributing Reporter at Viral Pirate: Hey Dann, how’s it going?
You mentioned earlier you were bustin’ a move, what are you up to?
I’m all over the place, I flew back in today to L.A. I’ve been in New York doing a bunch of meetings, was in Vegas just yesterday… for a meeting. It’s busy, but it’s awesome. Everybody is embracing the future of VR.
With a title like Head of Content is there more of a focus on long term planning or executing individual projects? What is your involvement?
It’s all the way around, man. Some of these meetings are introductory. When I met with Nickelodeon in New York, it was just a conference room full of executives playing around with VR, we’re talking about different content ideas we could do together and what direction they’d like to go in. Really what is happening is VRLIVE is becoming a consultant to these big companies’ VR strategies.
I’m also involved from the creative standpoint, deciding what that content will be and what the goals are for that content as far as distribution and releasing. I’m involved in the production as well. During big productions I’ll be on site and there will be a director, production manager, and a full production team. I’ll be there as a liaison between the client, which could be an artist like Coldplay or U2, or a festival like EDC or Lollapalooza, or a corporation like Verizon.
With its mix of original programming and user generated content would you consider the VRLIVE platform to be closer in comparison to YouTube or Netflix?
The goal for VRLIVE as a whole is evolving all the time. It’s early enough that we’re open to the business model fluctuating. As far the destination online, our goal is not to be the YouTube of VR, but we do think it’s very interesting to be a broadcast network, so we’ve been playing with that since we began, as far as having programming and linear content. But it’s changing all the time and our focus right now is building the future with these great partnerships, like Shazam. We integrated our tech with theirs and we’re basically making VR experiences Shazamable.
You’ve been involved in music as both a performer and venue manager, not to mention you went to film school. How have these experiences shaped your focus?
I actually moved to L.A. for music and acting. I did a few films and commercials, but music was always more of my passion. Then I started traveling as the lead singer in a rock band, and we did the Warped tour, got some radio airplay, and had a top management team. During that time I was also working for Kiefer Sutherland’s record label, Ironworks. I was working at his home studio, helping produce albums for acts like Lifehouse, which ended up being a gold record.
I’ve also worked in broadcast television for companies like MTV and VH1 on a lot of different productions including everything from reality TV to award shows.
Music was always in my heart and eventually landed the position of Production Manager of The Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, and did that for about 8 years. That’s really where I put my anchor down as far as my involvement in the music industry. The relationships from my time there really helped propel us in the early stages at VRLIVE.
Using The Roxy as our testing lab, we eventually ended up doing the world’s first 360° live stream. VRLIVE was also the first company to live-stream a major artist in concert, which was a benefit concert for Adopt The Arts, featuring Slash and Matt Sorum from Guns N Roses, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, and Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi, among others.
We initially started doing tests at The Roxy with local bands. Once we felt confident enough, we approached Slash and Matt Sorum from Guns N’ Roses because they’re Roxy family. Once we did that stream with Slash, we started meeting with our music industry friends, and since then we’ve live-streamed and filmed 360° virtual reality experiences with artists such as U2, Coldplay, Radiohead, Justin Bieber, Steve Aoki, Johnny Depp and Alice Cooper with The Hollywood Vampires and plenty of others.
Also, in 2016 alone we’ve done the iHeartRadio Music Awards, Indy 500, Electric Daisy Carnival, and Lollapalooza.
With such an outstanding amount of experience in the music and film industries, did you approach VRLIVE or did VRLIVE find you?
Is Heiner more of a technical founder, what is his background?
Heiner is the most charismatic and passionate VR enthusiast you’ll meet, he’s brilliant. He comes from a world of broadcast technology. He was part of the team that started a very large broadcast company in Germany.
VRLIVE does primarily 360º video, correct?
Yes, but we’re also developing a lot of CGI (computer generated imaging) as well. We’re actually building virtual worlds for major artists. When the Internet was born everyone wanted their own website. Now every artist, every brand wants to have their own virtual destination.
Where is VRLIVE based out of?
It’s the entertainment capital of the world, man! It makes a lot of sense. I’ve been traveling a lot, but it makes a lot of sense to be based here. We recently launched an office in Sydney, Australia as well. We have a lot of business over there.
Would you say Sydney is the Los Angeles of Australia?
As a college student I have to ask: how many years until someone can major in Virtual Reality or VR Production?
I don’t think it will be very long. When we started the company three years ago, it was us and maybe two other companies that were around. When we sponsored the first Silicon Valley VR conference (SVVR) there was like three other companies. Now when you go to conferences like VRLA it’s massive. We’ve seen firsthand being in L.A. and Hollywood, nearly every production company is now developing a division for VR, they get it, they get what’s coming, no question. It’s awesome to see how it’s been growing.
When do you see VR becoming a mainstream technology, affordably incorporated in everyday household objects like cell phones and televisions.
It will be interesting to see what happens this holiday season. Now that the PlaystationVR system is available, we think that is going to move things more quickly into the homes on a more mainstream level.
That makes a lot of sense. Video game consoles are linked right under the television, which is basically the contemporary fireplace of the American home.
I see a world very soon where VR is of course an entertainment device, but also a tool, an appliance that every home will have. We’re focusing on entertainment and music, but we also have other parts of the company focusing on real estate, education, and there are many different silos of VRLIVE.
It’s just moving so fast compared to when we first started the company. I was taking meetings in Starbucks, I’d have the headset on and people would look at me like I was crazy, and now you’re seeing commercials about it, people are understanding more what VR is. I brought a headset to a restaurant for a friend to check out, and random people would approach us wanting to check it out, people just got in line.
They were like ‘oh my God, that’s the VR thing!’ People are getting it. The interest is there.
One time I was at a party and this little nine year old girl came up to me and asks “is that the Oculus?” It’s really interesting to have been in this new VR space long enough to witness the increase in curiosity.
For the Electric Daisy Carnival we had the VRLIVE Lounge, where we streamed 3 stages directly to 50 headsets in an on-site activation. People could put on the headsets and stand on stage virtually next to their favorite DJ as he was performing live. People were dancing, one girl was crying saying “I was standing next to Tiesto!” It’s awesome.
Most recently we partnered with Universal Music Group and developed their VR platform VRTGO, we’re super excited about the content and live-streamed concerts we’ll be offering together with them. The app is available in various app stores today!
Whether you’re a die-hard music junkie, a tech nerd looking for some inspiration, or a budding film maker with an eye toward the next frontier of film be sure to check out the maiden voyage of the new mobile app VRTGO, powered by VRLIVE and Universal Music Group.