Some summer music festivals toss in virtual-reality booths as an afterthought, entertaining fans coming down from fist-pumping DJ sets. But Panorama, kicking off Friday at New York's Randall's Island, makes cutting-edge technology the star of the show, almost as prominent as headliners Frank Ocean, Solange and Nine Inch Nails. "If you are going to create a VR experience at a festival, it absolutely must be a communal one," says Justin Bolognino, founder and chief experience officer of Meta, which designs the Lab, a Panorama centerpiece since the festival debuted last year. "Tech is never going to replace emotion and storytelling."
The Lab, an on-site museum displaying New York sound and light (and even smell) artists, centers on a 90-foot, 360-degree, 220-seat dome theater showing 3D films; fans waiting in line experience a virtual-reality "reflective labyrinth" guiding them from darkness to light. Artist Android Jones, who has displayed his work at Burning Man and Dead and Co. concerts, creates what Bolognino calls a "transformational VR world," in which fans make their own artistic holograms together, using computers and video-game controllers. After approaching 35 New York studios to submit work earlier this year, the Lab's curators chose six cosmic installations, including "Boolean Planet," by artist Future Wife, which contains "a monolithic sphere ... slicing through celestial veils."
Sponsored by HP computers, the Lab is the most elaborate concert-business plunge into VR to date, although artists such as 2 Chainz (who recently released a "Virtual Trap House" for those with Samsung headsets), Björk, Childish Gambino and others have dabbled in the medium. "It's not some add-on," Bolognino says. "It's absolutely a foundational part of the core DNA." Last year, before unveiling attractions such as artist Emilie Baltz' Cotton Candy Theremin, a mash-up of art, sound and dessert, Paul Tollett, the Coachella promoter who also puts on Panorama, said: "People are going to see that and think, 'I want to see that each year.'"
Although no artist or festival has gone as all-in on tech and VR as Panorama, many in the concert business have bet big on virtual reality – top promoter Live Nation and top label Universal Music have invested in startups NextVR and VRLive. Some are skeptical: "It's a bit George Orwell science fiction," says Jake Berry, U2's longtime production director. "Either it's complete bullshit, or it's going to come true." But Bolognino notes that promoter AEG, which oversees Panorama, has significantly increased spending on the Lab this year. "Economics are relative," he says. "Our goal, ultimately, is to shake you into your core, so you can transcend yourself. ... We're trying to do something absolutely extraordinary. And doing something extraordinary is not cheap."