The experimental panoramic camera
Silvia is a colleague who works in the BBC's Audio & Music division. She recently made a personal visit to the Proms, on the night of the Vaughan Williams Prom which featured his Symphonies 3, 4 and 5 . This coincided with the installation of a panoramic camera, being used for the first time in a live Prom concert environment as part of a BBC Research & Development project (more on this in a future blog…). Here, Silvia records her impressions from backstage - where a piano was being prepared for the following evening's John Cage centenary concert - and in conversation with the Promenaders out front.
When I arrived at the Royal Albert Hall about two hours before the concert, the men in the Hall were just wheeling a piano about that had just been 'prepared' with screws in the strings to change the sound of it for the following evening's performance of John Cage's Concerto for Prepared Piano.
A huge floor area next to the stage was opened and the was lowered down to be stored underneath the stage in a sort of piano park where about five pianos were sitting peacefully next to each other. I then noticed that a few camera men were gathering around an amazing camera that is called Omni-Camera or Panoramic Camera which has a larger than normal camera dynamic range. It sits on a large box about 2 metres high and has six cameras pointing at angled mirrors that capture a picture of the stage and Hall in a 180 degrees radius without distorting the picture at the edges.
The camera shows the picture in more detail in the black and white or dark and bright areas of the viewing object. It also has a ball-shaped microphone on top, named Eigen-Mike, which has 32 microphones in it that can 'audio' zoom in when a particular scene is being focused on. Apparently, the whole thing is six times better than HD. The whole project to develop this prototype camera is EU funded and has the BBC working with Fraunhofer/Heinrich Hertz Institute, a Research and Development company from Germany, and other companies working in the field to develop this technology. The project is called 'Fascinate' - I was given a very interesting explanation from Hannah Fraser of the BBC Research & Development department and someone from Fraunhofer about the camera and how it works. They then took me underneath the Arena and showed me the 'behind the scenes' part of it. German colleagues from various companies showed me the screen with the picture the camera can take and it was truly amazing to see the Royal Albert Hall's stage and nearby seats in absolute straightness in 180 degrees, without any distortion.
The processing part of the camera and other equipment was located with colleagues downstairs and they could zoom in and choose close up views with a trackball. The camera is being trialled for Sports and cultural events in Europe and a cinema that can show the relevant film results in a 180 degree view is located in Berlin. They are also working on a mobile prototype of it to take to live events. For example, virtual directing can be programmed into the camera at a football match, where the programmed camera follows the ball ...or fouls! Those different scenes can be streamed next to each other and it's guaranteed that the camera films every occurrence on the pitch. One has to say though that the development of the viewing technology will also have to be developed to truly appreciate this new recording technology. The people I spoke to all praised the team spirit and the good collaboration of everyone on the project. It sounded really positive and innovative, a vision of the future.
I talked to a lot of people: The first couple I spoke to had come down from Derbyshire just for the music. They loved Vaughan Williams and made a trip of it and stayed with relatives in London. Another gentleman (who lives in Cambridge and commutes to London) who stood in the arena is a season ticket holder and decided to 'prom' it for this particular concert (i.e. stand in the Arena) where he wanted to try the acoustics from that space. I asked him about the mix of old and new music during the Proms season and he said it was mostly interesting to hear new music but he wasn't so keen on atonal or dissonant music - but he understood why composers tried that way of making music. We had quite a philosophical discussion …
The German steward who showed us to our seats was charming and so keen on classical music that for the concerts she really wants to be in the Hall for, she takes the day off. Combining a love of music with work - perfect!
The man sitting next to me also came to hear the rare combination of three Vaughan Williams symphonies and fell into a sort of meditation with his eyes closed in the first half. Like all the others he was also very knowledgeable about the music. Especially so the young man I talked to afterwards when I picked up my bike and he was also just about to cycle off. He is an amateur musician (violin and piano) but works as a software engineer during the day. He immediately talked about the nuances of Vaughan Williams' music that you can hear in a liove concerts but which might not be detectable on a CD - he used detailed musical language when talking about the concert. It was truly wonderful how much the people who go to the Proms express their love for the music. Looking around in the auditorium I saw people literally moving their bodies to the music. Either they were nodding their heads in rhythm or slightly swaying their upper bodies; and when talking to them I could also see how much they were moved emotionally by the music. The wonderful thing is that music is universal and touches us all in one way or another. I had a wonderful evening with a mixture of looking behind the scenes and talking to the audience. The success of the Proms is also obvious by the sheer number of people trying to catch a bus or going to the Underground station once the concert has finished … about 5000 people making their way home after an enjoyable evening at the Proms. Just wonderful.