Shoal Lake-born PhD pilots state-of-the-art software

A groundbreaking performance simulation facility is setting new standards at the Royal College of Music in London, U.K. thanks to the leadership of George Waddell, originally from Shoal Lake, Manitoba.

The college where Waddell works as a performance research and innovation fellow has just launched a £2-million (C$3.4-million), state-of-the art performance simulator, the first of its kind, according to a press release found on the education institution’s website.

The simulator blends cutting- edge acoustic technology with advanced visual graphics engines similar to those used in video games to support the training of student musicians. It will also be available for commercial use.

To facilitate the simulator, the college’s performance studio has been transformed into an immersive laboratory featuring expansive wall-sized screens and a state-of-the-art Meyer Sound Constellation system. Numerous speakers have been placed within the walls and ceiling. The technology enables users to replicate the acoustics of various performance venues or even create entirely new acoustic environments. The immersive visual imagery of performance spaces are powered by Unreal Engine software, and feature detailed models of the college’s own concert halls and theatre, complete with realistic and reactive virtual audiences or audition panels.

Waddell, who was born and raised in Shoal Lake, Man., located 108 kilometres northwest of Brandon, practically grew up in his parents’ veterinary clinic before moving to a farm where he lived with them until he graduated high school. After that, he attended Brandon University (BU) to pursue a career in music. He received his bachelor of music in 2010 and his master in music in 2012.

“I started as a musician very young, the oldest of five. Our mom got us all playing the piano, playing local festivals,” Waddell told the Sun. “So when it came time for me to graduate from high school, I didn’t really give it a second thought. Pursuing music seemed like an obvious thing to do, and it’s something I love to do.”

While pursuing his bachelor’s degree in music at BU, Waddell also studied psychology. He was surprised by the similarities that he found between music and psychology during his studies, he said.

“There were these people in this science building asking very similar questions to us musicians about how we learn, how we memorize, how we communicate, but they were just using different technology.”

Waddell kept taking psychology classes during his master’s degree studies, and before long he heard about experts at the Royal College of Music who were studying how people made and shared music. Inspired by the way the college married his two main interests of music and psychology, Waddell applied and was accepted to do his PhD studies there. He and his wife moved to London in 2012.

Living, working and raising a family in London has been amazing, Waddell says. After getting over the culture shock of moving from Manitoba to the largest metropolis in the U.K., he has come to appreciate the city with a passion and enthusiasm similar to what he shows when working at the college.

“The plan was for [the move] to be temporary, but it wasn’t long before we really started falling in love with the place. I mean, London is just the epicentre of everything, of culture, of history, of the world. Everything seems to cross London at some point,” he said.

When Waddell first moved to London to start his doctoral work at the Royal College of Music in 2012, the college had just launched the performance simulator, which took cues from how surgeons and pilots train going into simulations. At the time, the performance simulator was made up of a projection of a small audience or audition panel on a wall. Keyboard buttons could be pushed to make the panel say different things, or even sneeze and cough.

From December 2022 to September of last year, Waddell and his co-workers put the finishing touches on the new, expanded version of the performance simulator. Now, rather than just projecting, the program is much more versatile and able to simulate a much more diverse amount of scenarios, he said.

“It’s much more immersive. We updated all the hardware, so instead of small projection there’s three large screens that surround you. And then crucially, in addition to our small one in a small space, we took over one of our medium-sized performance spaces and built it 100 times bigger,” Waddell said. “Here, the screens are floor to ceiling, and in this space as well we installed a stateof- the-art system that at the push of a button can change the acoustics of the room using dozens

of speakers and microphones and a small supercomputer we had to build.”

In more recent weeks, the team started to build the next generation of simulation using the modern video game engine, which is much more versatile.

This combination of technologies offers an unprecedented opportunity to simulate authentic and heightened performance scenarios under pressure, Waddell says. By adjusting audience responsiveness, introducing disruptions common in live performances, manipulating lighting and audience size, or creating intimidating audition or competition environments, performers and users can refine their skills by experiencing different conditions.

Aaron Williamson, Head of the college’s Centre for Performance Science, said that the new program’s unique integration of cutting- edge technologies will provide unparalleled opportunities for students to prepare for the challenges of the modern music industry and drive research across various disciplines.

“Unequalled in its immersive capabilities through the unique combination of cutting-edge technologies, the spaces will create unparalleled opportunities for our students to prepare for the challenges of a modern music industry as well as propelling research in this field across multiple disciplines,” Williamson said in the release.

A similar technology setup has been implemented in a second studio within the college’s historic Blomfield Building, enhancing the original performance simulator and making it available for day-today use by students. Modules in performance science are integrated into student programs across all levels, and technologies capable of tracking performers’ physiology and movements will also be used in both spaces to spearhead new research into live performance.

Since its introduction in 2011, the college has used the simulator to help thousands of students and professionals from organizations such as the Imperial College Business School, Football Association and Google hone their skills of live performance under pressure, Waddell said.

“The new performance laboratory will be transformational in the range and realism of situations for which we can help performers adapt and prepare.”

The project was funded by a £1.9-million (C$3.2-million) grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and World Class Laboratories Fund, and the design and development of the new facilities were led by the college’s Centre for Performance Science and Digital teams.

Bringing together this collection of technologies shows how committed the college is to supporting the next generation of museums, said Richard Bland, the head of the college’s digital and production department.

“The Constellation system alone is thrilling as it is the U.K.’s first publicly accessible performance space treated this way. The opportunities to use multiple technologies in a venue hosting so many concerts during the year puts the college at the forefront as a digital innovator,” Bland said in the release.

The college plans to also use the performance laboratory in performance research across arts, business, sports, medicine, and education.

When Waddell thinks back to his own career path and journey as a musician, he feels proud to have been part of making something that could eventually help people all over the world perform at their best levels with the performance simulator.

“I can imagine when I was growing up in Shoal Lake, when I was young, that something like this would have been very useful to me, and valuable to me to see what it’s like to play on these big stages around the world,” he said. “Otherwise, I just had to sort of cross my fingers and see how it went when I actually traveled to perform or compete.”

Waddell said he and his team are actively looking for opportunities to share the technology with people living all around the world.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun