CES 2016: Virtual Reality Abounds as Universal Music and iHeartMedia Announce Partnership

Virtual reality enthusiasts won’t have to wait long to see the first execution of the new partnership between Universal Music Group and iHeartMedia, announced at CES.

The two companies, which are developing immersive music experiences that will leverage UMG’s roster and iHeart’s live events and listener base, will take their first swing at the iHeartRadio Awards, April 3.

The event this year is being broadcast live on Turner networks TBS, TNT and TruTV, but will be complemented by virtual reality content featuring an unannounced UMG artist, and will include backstage and other footage, John Sykes, president of entertainment enterprises for iHeartMedia, tells Billboard.

“We want to not only make the experience better for the fans in the venue, but to create moments that could only exist for fan watching and listening outside the venue,” Sykes says.

The partnership, the first between the two companies, is exclusive “for now,” Sykes says, but “all doors are wide open, for UMG and for us. For now we have this deal with them as an exclusive partnership.“

The iHeartRadio VR content is not, they stress, the main event. “At this point we are creating a second screen experience for one of the artists that’s meant to be viewed on a companion screen simultaneously,” he says.

Later in the year, the partners plan to expand the foray, with plans to include concerts and other live shows that will be filmed at the iHeartRadio Theater in LA and that would be “a pure VR experience, whether there is TV distribution or not,” Sykes says.

Fans want to connect more closely with the artists they are passionate about, he says, and have made vocal their desire for a remote, but immersive, experience. “VR is getting real traction in the marketplace and is forecasted to reach 170 million [people] in the next 24 months. Innovation is always the result of really an elegant collision of technology and consumer demand, and we felt that in 2016 that time is right.”

Passionate or not, getting an immersive VR experience won’t come cheap. Headsets from companies including Facebook-owned Oculus, Vive and Taiwanese tech company HTC range from $600-$1,500 -- and that's not including the computer hardware required to use the devices. Oculus began taking orders for its VR headset this yesterday, with deliveries set for March 28.

Still to be determined is the tech firm that will provide the VR experience for the iHeart and UMG endeavor. A spin around the CES show floor reveals handful of music VR demoes sprinkled among the gaming and expansive film displays.  

Palo Alto-based Vrtify is one possibility. The company has been quietly signing deals with programmers – of both audio and video – and will launch its first major play with Spotify later this year where Spotify customers can choose an immersive environment in which to enjoy their playlist.

“We’ve created thousands of environments for them,” Facundo Martin Diaz, CEO of Vrtify, tells Billboard. “People go into their Spotify account, and we let them navigate their choices in a VR environment.”

Vrtify has raised $3.2 million to date with commitments for an additional $25 million this year, Diaz says. Songwriter and producer Billy Mann, who’s worked with artist including Pink, Josh Groban and Ricky Martin through his Manncom firm, is on the Vrtify board of directors.