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How will augmented reality affect music?

Anyone who has seen The Matrix is familiar with the idea of virtual reality, the concept that all our senses can be “tricked” into perceiving a reality that is not actually there. You may have also heard of augmented reality— the idea that bits of a virtual reality can be placed over our perception of normal reality.

Augmented reality glasses that overlay digital imagery on top of our normal vision have become a real item, one that many people are getting excited about. With these glasses, one can open up a Word document in their personal field of vision, navigate a list of menu items, or overlay an image of a giant floating shark onto their world.

I’ve compiled a list of possibilities of how augmented reality could affect people’s interactions with music. I take a look at two perspectives here, one being that of musicians and performers, the other that of the music listening audience.

Augmented reality for musicians:
AR could do a lot to aid the performance of music. For example…

  • Virtual Chord Charts
    Jazz musicians are already familiar with the phone and tablet app, iReel Book, that has digital chord charts for thousands of jazz and rock tunes. This app could be ported over to augmented reality glasses so that the chords are superimposed over a performer’s field of vision, easing the burden of recall.
  • Virtual Sheet Music
    Just as with chord charts, digital sheet music could be presented to sight reading musicians.
  • Virtual Performance Notes
    Years ago, I used to write down notes that I would place at the foot of the stage to remind me of various ideas I wanted to try out during solos. (These were ideas like “use string skipping,” or “play Phrygian scale over dominant chords.”) I almost always forgot the notes were there in the heat of the moment. Nonetheless, superimposed music notes could remind musicians of various aspects of performance they tend to forget.
  • Virtual Music Notes
    I play a lot of music from the 1920-40s and I like to pass on various bits of trivia, jokes and stories related to the songs as I play them. Currently I refer to a few sheets of notes for this. It would be great to simply have the information presented as augmented reality text.
  • Stage Fright Solutions
    Stage fright is a problem for a lot of musicians. Perhaps some of it could be mitigated by augmented reality imagery that blocks out the view of the environment, replacing it with a more soothing one. (Who could be nervous while playing for an audience of smiling, animated Disney bunnies, for example?) Virtual reality has been used to treat PTSD; perhaps it could also sooth the nervous jitters of performers.

Augmented reality for listeners
We’ve seen the possibilities of AR from the performer’s perspective. What about that of the folks watching the performance?

  • Song Lyrics
    AR glasses-wearing audience members could see an imprint of the lyrics to the current song be presented karaoke style over their visual field.
  • Song Notes
    Audiences could also be treated to notes on the current song: what inspired it, what the obscure lyrics mean, etc.
  • Trippy Images
    When I was a teenager, Laser Floyd—the combination of the music of Pink Floyd with a laser light show—was all the rage. Similar imagery could be “broadcast” to audience members’ AR glasses during a music performance.
  • Video show
    Modern big budget rock concerts often feature accompanying videos. Smaller acts can’t compete with this as they can’t afford the giant screens and projectors. But what if such imagery was presented on AR glasses?

Sound AR
Everything discussed so far has been related to AR people can see. What about augmenting our heard reality? High budget bands already have earpieces that allow them to fine tune their mix. What if this ability was transferred to audience members? Listeners could tweak their own EQ, add various effects like compression, reverb, raise volume etc.

The downsides
So far, this article probably reads like a techno-utopian fantasy. But I see downsides to all this, especially in regards to arming the audience with ways to tweak their music listening (and seeing) experience. Will all these options distract from the actual music? Will audiences lose their ability to “surrender to the moment.” And will the music experience become less communal? If I tweak my music listening experience to my specifications I may not relate to the experience everyone else has. We could retreat into our technology.

I will add additional ideas to this article as they come to me.

And if you’ve got any thoughts about how AR could affect music, I’d love to hear them. wilforbismusic@hotmail.com

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