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Donald Glover dressed in tribal garb, singing on stage

Musical act Childish Gambino collaborates with Microsoft to bring VR experience of ‘PHAROS’ to life

If you didn’t trek out to Joshua Tree, California, in September for the three-day concert event launching Childish Gambino’s latest album, “Awaken My Love,” you’re still in luck: A new virtual reality experience can take you there. The event, dubbed “PHAROS,” is a collaboration with Microsoft that works with any mobile phone and some VR headsets.

“We were looking for a special way to debut the album and we wanted to do it live with the band because they were such an integral part of the recording process,” says Wolf Taylor, manager and live producer at Wolf and Rothstein, the band’s management company, who called the event a “one-off to capture VR and debut the record before it was commercially available. We look forward to planning more PHAROS events.”

Childish Gambino is the musical alter-ego of Donald Glover, an actor who’s starred in TV shows such as the Golden Globe-winning “Atlanta” and popular “Community” as well as movies like “The Martian” and the upcoming standalone “Star Wars” movie about the young Han Solo, in which he’ll play the young Lando Calrissian.

In December, Childish Gambino debuted a 360-degree video of “Me and Your Mama,” from the new album. The video delivered a preview of the full immersive experience that will be available for fans who buy a special vinyl edition of the album – they’ll get a code to unlock that virtual journey.

“This record, sonically, feels like a perfect blend of past and future. We wanted the vinyl to represent this same aesthetic,” Taylor says.

To get the full effect, download the PHAROS app, on iPhones and Android devices, as well as on Windows 10 mobile. You can also use a virtual reality headset.

“This is the first time we’ve done this with a music artist,” says Fred Warren, creative director for Connected Digital Services within Microsoft.

“We have a longstanding relationship with his team, and while chatting about opportunities, we started talking to them about the Music x Technology program,” adds Amy Sorokas, director of strategic partnerships, Microsoft Brand Studios. “This is a series of collaborations that explore emerging modes of artistic expression and celebrate advances in interactive technology. It provides ways to expose music to the world in new and interesting ways that really allow people to interact with content in a human and emotional way.”

The conversation turned to what they could do with Microsoft technology and the PHAROS event, which included five shows played over three days in a dome.

“We were trying to create a shared experience, and make that available through PHAROS, a different kind of experience with an artist,” Warren says. “We created an immersive environment based on Donald’s script, weaving a story that unites the album and crafted a world we projected with characters, environment and effects.”

Warren describes the show as a “polyphonic design with harmony-based music” communicating how “the world is a lot bigger than all of us.”

Taylor says that in the making of the album, Glover invited band members to the studio where he and his producer would experiment with new sounds and vintage instruments.

The team used Microsoft’s OneNote for pre-production and design to build out the show.

“OneNote helped us trade updates and kept the team in sync through the entire creative process,” Taylor says. “We may have had an ocean between us at times but we were easily updated with OneNote.”

Warren says Glover had the show “in his head” and used Kinect sensors to create characters with movement and motion. He and another dancer recorded the 18 characters who made up the show, which devoted a full set to perform the album. To clean up all the data involved in the production, they processed the information through Azure, and then added custom animations to bring the characters to life. They used the Unity game engine to run the show from a Surface tablet. All this took just weeks, instead of months, since they didn’t have to do animation by hand.

“I enjoyed creatively collaborating. There was a lot of give and take. Compromise and accountability is key when working creatively with another team and Microsoft was able to be a great partner in this way,” Taylor says. “Microsoft brought a wealth of technology that allowed for the 4D capture of Donald. They also worked closely on the content production pipeline as well as the VR capture and VR app. Microsoft was able to capture such an accurate representation of the event in VR. It’s special that we can share this show with all of our fans after it is long over.”

He adds, “Technology is an important tool that we use to enhance our marketing efforts and live performances. It’s important to make sure that technology serves a function and is not just being used because it’s available. It allows fans that didn’t trek to the desert to be able to live in the world of ‘Awaken My Love’ from afar!”

Event photos above by Ibra Ake [Wolf + Rothstein].