Why should musicians care about Virtual Reality?

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Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds – that’s me in the headset!

Virtual Reality is just a techy fad, isn’t it? What does it have to do with making and enjoying music? How can it really bring anything valuable to presenting gigs?

Before getting into this it’s worth saying  there are various immersive experiences which can all be referred to as VR: 360 degree videos and photos, augmented reality (think Pokemon Go), and then true virtual reality (think being inside a 3D computer game).  In the latter two you can usually explore and move around, although VR is still in its infancy so the graphics are not exactly hyper-real.

Image result for vr faceSo 360 video is an immersive visual experience, and VR is more of an immersive physical experience. But both of them can lead to what is known as ‘VR face’…

Some fun stuff has been done with music and 360 video. There numerous music videos but I like this bonkers one by Swiss jazz band The Great Harry Hillman (bonus points if you can spot the train or the acrobat), there have been live streamed 360 gigs from the Youtube Space in LA by the likes of Jacob Collier (which also put his visuals in 360), and experiments done with classical music such as the Philharmonia’s Virtual Orchestra. I’ve heard people say that 360 video is a fad, but right now it’s the thing musicians have embraced the most.

Perhaps the marriage of music and true VR is still a bit shaky because no-one has quite worked out how to combine the physical side of experiencing live music with a virtual world, and to be honest it seems like no-one has really worked out why music needs VR. But there’s one very important reason why VR needs music:

‘Artists and queers and weirdos need to hit VR now, and hit hard, before VR culture ends up as conservative as the worst of gamer culture.’
Robert Yang

We need to consider who is making content for VR and shaping what it could be in the future… I was amazed to discover recently that Mark Zuckerberg is responsible for its current wave of popularity having heavily invested in Oculus who make VR headsets. But what is his motivation? And what do we know about his ethics from Facebook? Another figure under scrutiny is the founder of Oculus, Palmer Luckey, who has hit the headlines for funding Donald Trump’s campaign and has recently offered surveillance technology for his infamous wall. And then there are the media scare stories. Right now these people are influential in the future of this powerful medium. It’s not just about politics or capitalism either: the tech industry is notoriously male-dominated.

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Michael Strauebig’s Imperfect VR workshop at Vivid Projects

The first musician to really embrace VR on a major scale and show what could be done is Bjork with the Vulnicura VR experience which came to Somerset House. I wish I’d seen it, but essentially it was a set of VR/360 music videos which allowed you to explore landscapes and used graphics to visualise the music. There are various VR music visualisers out there too but my response to those is ‘does this really enhance the listening experience?’ I can’t speak for Bjork’s show, but at least it had been conceived holistically with the music.

I recently went to Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds – a VR experience which restaged one of the earliest exhibitions in photography from 1839, which took place in a room in King Edward’s School, Birmingham. The original copies of the photos on show have faded almost to nothing so the VR technology is a great way to show the public something they couldn’t otherwise see. Visitors walk freely around a white room (see top photo), but when seen through the VR goggles it appears as a simulated version of the school where you can view and ‘pick up’ the photos. Actually you’re wearing a 3kg backpack containing a laptop, a VR headset, headphones and have various cables and sensors attached. The need for this level of equipment is a significant limitation in terms of artists using the tech – it gets in the way and is expensive.

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Thresholds VR gear

One of the best moments is when you suddenly hear shouting in the soundtrack: if you head over to the ‘windows’ you can see rioting protesters outside. In trying to look out of the ‘window’, I accidentally head-butted a wall with my VR headset (which extends about 4 inches in front of your face). It’s definitely not a harmonious, natural experience yet but there is potential.

On the interactive theme, there are various music games using VR with hand-held controllers (such as Rock Band VR) which look great fun, although reviews say the graphics are a still a bit cartoonish. I also came across this interesting VR game from the Sonar+D conference where you ‘assume the role of a composer who upon realising that every object in their surrounding makes a noise, attempts to decipher the melodies they make’ whilst exploring a mysterious castle. You toss objects into a tornado to amplify their sound and discover their melodies from musician Hot Sugar. Trippy… It’s made by multinational media giant Viacom though, so not exactly grassroots.

So with my BOOM fellowship in mind, thinking about presenting music and sound in unusual spaces, I was wondering about the virtual realm as a place to present music. The fascinating thing about Thresholds was the technology taking you to another place and time to see artefacts which are now un-seeable. Because of that, there is a wish to put more VR experiences in museums and galleries. But what’s the benefit for music?

Performance is so intertwined with real people and shared experiences that if we’re talking about VR in terms of live music I think augmented reality (AR) has to be the way forward. Whether it’s adding extra content and virtual objects over your camera view of a real performance, or allowing you to watch a real musician in an unreal venue, or something which lets you interact with other audience members, humanity is a key part of live music. Here’s one recent AR example from Beatie Wolfe. And Apple are about to put augmented reality right into your phone with their ARKit for app developers, meaning apps using AR will be available when iOS 11 comes out in the autumn…

If you’re interested in having a go at creating VR yourself, I’ll be writing more on that very soon.

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