Augmented Reality and the Oakland Symphony

Generating new experiences with old scores

***A concept project for mobile***


The Oakland symphony would like to cultivate a new millennial audience without ostracizing the loyal, traditional classical music fans who’ve attended their shows for years.


I worked on a team of three as a UX designer with a primary focus on research, project management, and business strategy. This project lasted two weeks.


  • Market research
  • Surveys
  • User testing
  • Persona building
  • Business strategy


Our team leveraged augmented reality technology to create an interactive experience for millennial audiences that wouldn’t disturb more traditional symphony goers.

The view of the Oakland Symphony, above, shows an instructional score appearing at the bottom as it would appear on a phone. Audience members would pair their phones with a rentable augmented reality headset to achieve the view below.

The immersive view of the same instructional score. The symphony attendee would have the option to highlight different instruments in their view (trumpet is currently highlighted in this view, as indicated by the wheel on the right), or change their view so it features scenes from films or simulated weather scenes to enhance their symphonic experience. The “No effects” option will provide AR users with normal unaltered views of the concert.


Our strategy for this project was to answer the why, what, and how in that order. In other words, we need an answer to why aren’t millennials going to the symphony? and why haven’t previous tactics worked? before we can figure out what need to be changed and how we’re going to change it. Our first step towards figuring out this why was research.


Many symphonies are altering their season lineup to feature recognizable material specifically targeted at millennial audiences

Many orchestras across the country believe price and content are the primary barriers to entry for young audience members. To combat this, many groups (including the Oakland symphony) are experimenting with subscription models that offer truncated, cheaper show packages, or altering their schedule to make room for contemporary scores that are more familiar to younger audiences (think playing a movie score while the film plays in the background). While these promotions could be successful among the target demographic, they tend not to test as well among the more traditional classical fans. Furthermore, the symphony still struggles to retain its younger audience once Tchaikovsky rolls around on the schedule, so our problem remains unresolved, begging the question: if cheap subscription packages aren’t the cure to low millennial attendance, what is?


To answer this question we created a survey designed to pinpoint what, exactly, millennials value during their live event/performance experiences. Of the 125 results we received,

  1. 90% of respondents were millennials
  2. 80% of respondents attended live events
  3. 80% of respondents had either never attended the symphony, or attended only once in the past year.

In other words, this survey was completed by our target audience: millennials who like attending live events, just not THIS live event. Our results identified “hanging out with friends”, “seeing the artist perform in person”, and “the energy of the crowd” as the three most important variables considered when deciding to attend a show.

While these results weren’t surprising, they helped us focus on a few variables when developing our solution and helped confirm many of our preconceptions from secondary research. Most op-eds on this topic agree that millennials like trying new things and enjoy classical music more than most people expect, but most don’t attend the symphony. This is best boiled down by Aaron Goldstein who writes,

“I can say with confidence that: it’s not that listeners don’t like classical music. They just don’t like the experience of classical music.”

Thus, the question shouldn’t be “how can we make events cheap enough for millennials to attend?” or “how can we change our content so millennials will feel compelled to buy tickets?” but “how can we help millennials feel like the symphony is impactful and relevant to their lives, so that they will attend events more often?”

Comparative research showed there were a number of factors other events provide that aren’t always found at the symphony — autonomy, social engagement, accessibility — but there was only one that appeared in all of our comparisons: interaction. Seeing as the social (see hanging out with friends), educational, communal (see energy of the crowd) digestion of a performance all falls beneath the umbrella of interaction, we hypothesized that creating a more interactive symphonic experience would generate a larger millennial fan base because interaction is a primary value of millennials when they decide to go to live events.


The following personas were assembled using surveys and secondary research. The accompanying videos come from contextual inquiries at a San Francisco Symphony production of the Jaws score.

Persona 1

  1. Has classical music experience
  2. Would like to go to symphony because they enjoy the music
  3. Might not have friends to accompany them

Persona 2

  1. No classical music experience
  2. No interest in going to the symphony
  3. Likes other live events and hanging out in social environments
  4. Enjoys drinking

Persona 3

  1. Open to the symphony
  2. Like the classical sound but usually don’t recognize the music
  3. More likely to attend events when they recognize what’s being played


We came to augmented reality as a solution because it offers interaction, autonomy, accessibility, and can provide millennials with an experience that’s as unique or communal as they’d like it to be. Furthermore, in its simplest form, this can be seen as millennial movie night (an already popular solution), without subjecting the more traditional audience to the same, arguably distracting visuals.


The greatest hurdle at this point was figuring out whether or not this solution was actually viable? A business model could be structured so AR headsets are passed to symphony goers as audio guides are to museum guests, but this would require the symphony to buy a fair amount of the baseline materials. Top of the line AR headsets (think Microsoft Hololens) go for about $3,000 per person, creating a $9 million (3,000 x the 3,000 seats in the Oakland symphony) price tag that would be ghastly for a symphony already strapped for cash. Another option could be to invest in green screen technologies, which would be inexpensive, but wouldn’t provide as vivid a visual experience for those who want it and might be off-putting (due to the bold green hue of the backing screen) to those that don’t.

So we settled on an inexpensive AR model called the ZapBox as the best course of action. $30 per person, $15 less than the average ticket price.

The Oakland Symphony is also able to market their next concert as “groundbreaking” and “innovative”, whilst making a one time investment, that’s paid in full almost immediately, can be used forever, and appeals to the exact demographic they’re targeting.


A 3-D prototype developed to simulate the view a user would get within their ZapBox headset

We chose to keep our UI as simple as possible. The only controls on the screen are a standard navigation bar and a turn wheel that allow you to select visuals from a category and subcategory respectively. This is the standard UI for every ZapBox set, so its utility here creates a consistency between this and other AR experiences.

The navigation bar and turn wheel will only appear when you raise your wand (that comes with every ZapBox set) so as to not distract from the performance itself. The music is still the star of the symphony, this AR app simply provides optional, interactive visual enhancement.


Film view

This setting will allow concert attendees to view a compilation of selected movie clips as the symphony plays in the background. Ideally, the movement of the film will match the movement and mood of the score to make for easy digestion and subtle education.

Weather view

In this setting the user can see the mood of the score animated by simulated weather patterns. A darker, more sullen moment might be produce a visual like the one above whereas a lighter selection can part the clouds to produce views of palm trees and the beach.

Ink and Water view

This setting is an abstract visual stimulant meant to provide attendees with a visual that’s less predictable, but eerily beautiful and susceptible to interpretation.

No Effects view

If the visuals become bothersome or distracting, attendees can always return to an unaltered view of the orchestra.


After this pilot is introduced to the Oakland symphony, we’d like to play around with a more ambitious UI that will allow AR users to interact with each other, comment on a score as one might a SoundCloud song, and learn about the music through gamification.