#U2eiTour & Augmented Reality: The latest and greatest in software, hardware, and menswear

Original Story by Harry Kantas (2018-03-23)

The latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine, (March 22nd, 2018), makes a mention of U2’s upcoming Experience + Innocence Tour, including a few direct quotes from everyone’s favourite creative director, Mr. Willie Williams. “The staging takes that of its predecessor to a new level. [It will be] the first concert tour to incorporate augmented reality”. And if that was not exciting enough, he adds that the set will include “rarities the band is excited to be playing live for the first time”.

Now, I cannot even begin to think where “rarities performed live for the first time” might take us, but you can dream, so dream out loud. We’re one step closer to knowing, anyhow.

For now, let’s focus on the first teaser Willie Williams gave us: Augmented Reality!

Augmented Reality 101

Not everyone knows what Augmented Reality is, or how it fits into a concert tour, so let’s take a step back, and do a quick primer. (Warning: this could get geeky, and boring. If it does, just skip to the next part!)

Augmented Reality, or AR, is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view. Its closest neighbour, and source of potential confusion, Virtual Reality, is full immersion onto a virtual world, with no physical world elements.

AR has been around since the late 1960s, even though the term “Augmented Reality” wasn’t coined until the early 1990s. Towards 2009, AR broke into the mainstream. Initially on web sites, then on to your smartphone as apps and games, Google Glass, and the explosion of VR and AR headsets in gaming, AR is now more popular than ever.

So how should we expect AR to be incorporated on the #U2eiTour? While Willie Williams hasn’t given any more info on this yet, we can take a look at what’s currently possible with AR. AR can be broadly categorized into 5 types:

  • Recognition based AR focuses on recognition of objects, and then provides more information about the object. A good example of this, is mobile apps that read QR codes and present relevant information on the screen, or real-time translation apps.
  • Location based AR is taking advantage of a smart devices’ location detection features. If you are traveling and want to discover new places, this method will use your location by reading your smart device’s GPS, compass and accelerometer and give you relevant information about what you are looking for on your screen.
  • Outlining AR uses special cameras to outline certain objects on a display. Think of driving a car in foggy weather, and having the road lines outlined on your windshield using infrared cameras, so you can drive safely.
  • Superimposition based AR uses object recognition in order to replace an entire object, or a part of it, with an augmented view. in medicine, a doctor can use this technology to superimpose an X-ray view of a patient’s broken arm bone on a real image and provide a clear understanding of what the bone’s damage actually is.

Boy (Japan) Boy (Japan, translated)
Example of a Recognition based AR app, performing real-time translation.

Augmented Reality on the #U2eiTour

All of the above, while very cool AR applications, need a smart device, or headset of some sort to work. We do not believe that AR in the #U2eiTour will arrive in just that form, for a number of reasons.

  • While cool, using an app on your phone is not really that much of a breakthrough, and we have come to expect only greatness from Willie’s team.
  • Even if a mobile AR app was an option, and might make sense for the people sitting far away in the nose bleeds, in most cases, AR apps require a network connection, and as we all know, 4G/WiFi signals are horrendous inside any venue, so that would end up being a really bad user experience.
  • The screen. The screen in the #U2ieTour was under-utilised. This new AR must involve the screen somehow. And no other devices.

So, hopefully you will not be using your smartphone, or any kind of glasses to enjoy the new tour. (Although, that being said, and if anyone is listening out there, how cool would it be if the Electronic Press Kit (EPK) for the tour was delivered in an AR application, using one or more of the above techniques?) Anyway, I digress. How do we utilise the video-cage for AR?

Enter the 5th type of augmented reality tech: Projection based AR. This type of AR projects artificial light onto real world surfaces, forming digital images. It can be interactive, or non-interactive.

Another interesting application of projection based AR utilises laser plasma technology to project a 3D interactive hologram into mid-air.

Use of Projection based AR and holograms today

Still with me? Good. The hard part is over, now we’re off to the fun stuff!

Summarising from our research above, we have come up with 2 potential applications of Projection based AR for the tour:

  • projecting digital images and artificial light on to the video-cage, which would produce a 3D effect that compliments the video playing, while at the same time keeping the band visible, and
  • projecting 3D holograms away from the stage, and above the crowd.

We may get one of the above, or we may get neither. My money is on a combination of both, though.

Some of the promotional videos for the tour, show images like this next ones, which, even though a mock up, implies the use of holograms:

#U2eiTour 2018
#U2eiTour 2018

Eric Prydz is a Swedish DJ,who does a fantastic job at making ample use of Projection based AR in his shows. He stands behind a transparent LED wall, called a V-through, which forms the shape of a cube. The similarities with U2’s video-cage are close enough to give us an idea of the possibilities:

Prydz also incorporates holograms in his set. The holograms appear above the crowd, mid-air, and are visible across a 15K capacity venue. Again, the similarities with U2’s indoors arena shows and capacities look very promising.

Final Thoughts

While we still have no real information about the AR aspect of the #U2eiTour, aside from the one teaser line from Willie Williams, we went through what AR is, how it could be incorporated in a concert setting, and we looked at what other artists are doing with it, that might give us a small idea of what we are about to see on May 2nd in Tulsa.

Touring with an AR production, on U2’s scale, and in a concert tour, choreographed to complement 4 musicians playing live on stage, is definitely something that has never happened before. But we have come to know, and expect, that if anyone can push the boundaries of, and re-invent live shows, that’s U2, and their amazing team.

We’d love to hear your thoughts here: What would you like to see from this?
A giant hologram of the zoo-baby during songs from Achtung Baby/Zooropa?
Hundreds of laser beams washing the entire venue in red during the intro to “Streets”, all turning white as the song starts?
A gigantic, holographic solar eclipse, as “The Blackout” starts?
Or perhaps the lyrics for “13,” as the show comes to an end?
Let us know what your ideal AR U2 moment would be, on Twitter or Facebook.

Some references

If the geeky stuff at the beginning didn’t scare you away, and you’d like to learn more about Augmented Reality, here is a list of some interesting articles:

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