360-degree virtual reality: Granada native behind tech

Dann Saxton scopes out the Super Bowl playing field in Houston on Saturday as part of two VRLIVE projects during the game. Saxton, formerly of Granada, is one of the co-founders of VRLIVE, which can broadcast 360-degree virtual reality for live events.

The 114 million viewers of the Super Bowl are roughly 380,000 times the number of people in the town of Granada. Yet all those viewers experienced a contribution from the man who still thinks of the town of 300 as “home.”

Dann Saxton, formerly of Granada, is one of the forces behind VRLIVE – a virtual reality studio that specializing in 360-degree live broadcast, which was involved in two different projects during the Super Bowl on Sunday. VRLIVE had not one but two projects that helped introduce them nationwide.

“One of the projects is for the Shazam app and Pepsi,” Saxton said. “People were able to Shazam their TV during the Super Bowl halftime show to open up a virtual reality CGI environment we designed with fun 360-degree video content to watch … The second project is extremely cool; it’s for the Hyundai car company. We brought three families to the game, and each family had their own dedicated 360-degree VR camera live-streaming feeds to a NATO military base in Poland, where their military family members are stationed.”

Saxton added that the idea was to surprise the military members and allow them to virtually hang out with their families at the game.

“How cool is that?” Saxton asked when explaining the idea. “Hyundai is making a TV commercial about the experience, which will be submitted in the third quarter, and this will be the very first commercial to play after the Super Bowl. It’s being directed by Peter Berg; we’ve been rehearsing each step of the project. It’s been really fun to watch a big movie director do his thing.”

VRLIVE came to be in late 2014, when Saxton met Heiner Lippman through his work at The Roxy entertainment venue.

“The Roxy has opened many doors for me,” Saxton said of his time there. “Being at the Roxy, I was in the middle of art all of the time. There was always filming, lots of bands and networking … Because of my interest, I was always meeting new people.”

At the time, Lippman was working on what would become the VRLIVE technology.

“He showed me this, and the first thing I saw was footage of being on a roller coaster,” Saxton recalled. “I remember how I actually felt my stomach drop once the footage got to the top and it plunged down.”

With his connections at The Roxy, the venue became a testing lab for VRLIVE with some of the band performances.

“The trick was getting the 360-like footage,” Saxton said. “We used clusters of cameras, covering all the angles that we stitched together to create the 360-degree mapping. It was a meticulous process, but we were finally able to do it live. The first ever live broadcast was from the roof of the warehouse where I live for a Halloween party… That was on Nov. 1, 2014. It ended up on Reddit, and the people on there went crazy for it.”

VRLIVE broadcasts began with local bands. In January 2015, a concert with Slash and Matt Sorum (formerly of Guns N’ Roses) was the first major concert to use the technology.

“It was a benefit with Slash, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Richie Sambora (of Bon Jovi),” Saxton said. “Once we had that footage, I hit the pavement like a salesman.”

It wasn’t long before VRLIVE was being pursued by the industry, and Saxton was involved with VRLIVE full time.

“In the music industry, we’re known as the experts,” Saxton said. “We continue to educate the music industry on how they could use and monetize this technology. And when people realize there’s value, people will pay … When they held a recent VR conference at Paramount Studios in Hollywood about it, there were only three companies that were on the panel for live virtual reality: CNN, Fox Sports, and us.”

VRLIVE has since live-streamed and filmed 360-degree virtual reality experiences with artists such as U2, Coldplay, Radiohead, Justin Bieber and Brian Wilson, Johnny Depp and Alice Cooper with The Hollywood Vampires. VRLIVE was also used for the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Awards, 2016 Indy 500, and 2016 Lollapalooza.

“We recently partnered with Universal Music Group and developed their entire VR platform, which is called VRTGO,” Saxton said. “They want to film all their artists.”

The technology has advanced so much that with certain apps, people could experience VRLIVE with mobile phones or tablets, such as Super Bowl halftime show last night. But virtual reality headsets are still better at offering the full virtual reality effect.

Along with VRLIVE, Saxton has another addition to his resume: Emmy award-winning voiceover artist.

“I have been doing voice-over work, most recently for CBS News pieces, I won an Emmy for voicing an Image Spot for CBS News in 2014,” Saxton said. “I’d always been interested in voiceover work, since working as a DJ in high school for KSUM in Fairmont, and a friend of mine ended up over at CBS News here in LA. So I came in, and they told me to just cut a few promos as practice, and what I didn’t know was one of those takes they ended up using and it got me hired.”

Saxton didn’t even know he won an Emmy until he was contacted by CBS afterward.

“I brought it home to the Granada area to show family and my high school theatre director, Kim Koppen,” Saxton recalled. “She had no idea that I had won it, so I had her open the box and surprised her! She always believed in me and she helped me craft my talents before moving to Los Angeles, so the Emmy is as much her accomplishment as it is mine. I’ll never forget surprising her, it was an amazing moment.”

But life hasn’t all been a Hollywood dream for Saxton.

“2016 was tough because my dad, Leland, passed away in September,” he said. “I would like to just mention how much he meant to me, how much he supported my dreams, and how I was with him in his final days.”

During the darker times, Saxton admits he’s still drawn back to “home,” although his mother no longer lives in the area.

“My mom, Lois Saxton, lives in Rochester and recently retired from the Mayo Clinic system,” Saxton said. “She’s also been really supportive of me … But I do find myself thinking about Granada all the time. I think about going back, and walking down the streets. I find I think about it when I feel I’m not moving forward here, or not progressing.”

Saxton also hopes he can help out his hometown area in the future.

“I would love to do more there, like organize more UNITY shows, or find a way to reach out and help the youth that are into music and the arts like I was,” he said.

On the Web: www.vrtgo.com