Will It Even Be Called Music? The Intriguing Future Of Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality has been hailed as the future of entertainment since back in the 1980s. In 2016, however, VR technology is finally coming of age, bringing with it tantalising ideas of how we might consume music in the future thanks to forward-thinking indie artists like Ash Koosha and Bjork

U2. Kasabian. Muse. It’s fair to say that the list of bands who have pioneered the use of Virtual Reality in music are more likely to have tQ readers sewing their eyes shut than queueing to buy headsets.

Maybe that seems logical. Filming Virtual Reality can be eye-wateringly expensive, with The New York Times said to have spent up to $100,000 a minute on its recent VR film The Displaced. Little wonder that U2 and Muse’s excursions into VR were backed by Apple, its $200bn cash pile and a corporate taste in music.

Put like this, the appeal of combining Virtual Reality and music seems at first glance like an expensive trinket to sit alongside 4K TVs in the home of the rich and easily swayed. But dig a little deeper into VR and a new thread emerges, where independent artists are driving experimentation in a technology that could – depending on who you talk to – transform music listening itself, reinvent the music video, fundamentally change live music or fade out again like just another fad.

It is, of course, still very early days in VR, with only a handful of music VR videos publicly available. But that is set to change: the first VR album – if we discount Megadeth’s Dystopia VR Experience, which is more of an accompaniment than album itself – will come out later this year from Iranian digital composer Ash Koosha (see still above). Squarepusher and Björk were among the first artists to experiment with VR, with videos for ‘Stor Eiglass’ and ‘Stonemilker’ respectively, while Run The Jewels have released a VR video for ‘Crown’ via The New York Times.

VR, in other words, is not just a plaything for the financially rich and musically bankrupt. It doesn’t even have to be expensive to watch: you can buy a basic Google Cardboard set for as little as £10, which will work with your ageing smartphone, and much of the VR videos produced to date are available for free.

"To me it sounds very gimmicky to have a huge artist doing their standard, very conventional type of music in VR," Ash Koosha explains. "Because for now, this pathway that we’re taking as artists is about a very abstract concept. It’s like transforming sound into objects and making a medium where it is totally audiovisual, you cannot say whether it is music or not. It is not even going to be called music anymore. It’s just an experience."

For Peter Martin, who directed the ‘Crown’ video for Run The Jewels, the problem with many of the existing VR music videos is that they don’t do anything particularly different with the technology at their disposal. "If it is going to be a VR video it has to do something that you can’t do on a normal screen," he says.

And what, you might wonder, is that? To date musical VR videos have largely focused on live performance putting you, the viewer, on a virtual stage with your rocker idol, close enough to inspect the tailoring of their trousers. In 2014 Paul McCartney teamed up with VR specialist Jaunt to release a free app that gave fans on-stage views of the former Beatle’s San Francisco Candlestick Park gig via Google Cardboard. The following year Kasabian worked with Visualise to allow fans to experience being on stage with the band at the Brixton Academy; U2’s VR video for ‘Song For Someone’, meanwhile, puts the viewer in the centre of the group as they play to an empty arena.

This approach makes a certain sense. For established acts, the live market has continued to perform strongly throughout the global financial slump and demand for big gigs frequently outstretches the supply of tickets. No one is pretending that VR will replace the gig going experience – not the least because watching more than half an hour of VR can make you want to puke – but if you can’t get a ticket for love nor money, then attending via Virtual Reality is probably the next best thing. Besides, the experience of watching Roger Daltrey belt out ‘Who Are You’ from the perspective of his on-stage monitor is something of a hoot. 

This approach could even bring in some cash for the beleaguered music industry. What’s £10, after all, for a VR pass to a concert, when a ticket to the physical gig could cost ten times that? Such is the logic behind MelodyVR, a platform for music VR content that is set to launch in the first half of 2016. It will have "hundreds, maybe thousands" of pieces of VR content, with a large percentage focused on live experience, including footage from gigs, festivals, clubs and intimate performances. Some of this will be free to access; some will be available for a price that founder Anthony Matchett says will be "in line with iTunes", with up-and-coming acts such as Youngr and Espa set to feature.

That’s all well and good.  But have we really come all this way just to create an experience that is not quite as good as watching U2 at the O2 Arena? Ash Koosha, for one, thinks not. "I think there are around ten [VR music videos]. I’ve seen most of them and most of them are a replication of reality that we live in, so I’m not interested to see that," he says. "I really like to see a Virtual Reality in its right sense which is a virtual world, it’s a reality that we cannot create in real life, it’s what we want to dream of, it’s re-creating our dreams… For me that’s Virtual Reality."

Koosha’s ideas for VR lie very much in this field. He describes his forthcoming VR album – 20 minutes of visual representations of music from his recent I AKA I release – as "like a journey of 20 minutes inside my head when I was making music". "What this project is trying to achieve for me is to make people feel the way I feel when I create music," he adds. "I see sounds, so what if I make something that gives the opportunity to see the same, to experience the same."

That may sound somewhat fanciful. And yet the physical tone of Koosha’s music – tQ’s review of I AKA I referenced "blocks of sound" and "blurts of percussion" – makes it well suited to this approach. "I feel like my sounds, each and every one of them, they have physical value," Koosha explains. "What is missing from the consumption of this type of music is exactly the VR experience."

Matchett, too, can see VR evolving into far weirder, more interactive places, comparing the possibilities of the technology to "teleportation and time travel". "It can take you to somewhere that you would have liked to have been but weren’t, like a gig, or it can take you to somewhere you can’t physically be," he explains. Indeed, he believes the possibilities are endless. 

"If you can imagine it, you can create it in VR," he says. "You can use visual effects, interactive audio, superimpose CGI elements over 360-degree video or create something that is completely CGI." Other artists set to explore this "bespoke VR experience" with Melody include Jurassic 5 and Seth Troxler, although these are unlikely to be ready for the platform’s launch.

Koosha, meanwhile, wants to integrate VR into his live shows, although this won’t involve the dystopian dream of audience in headsets. "If we want the audience to wear headsets then why are we inviting them to the venue?" he says. "If I use VR in live sets I will be doing the music inside VR headsets and people are going to see bits of it, see how I deal with the 3D environment."

This approach won’t, sadly, extend to live collaborations with enthusiastic VR punters – Koosha called that "my nightmare, letting 200 people decide where the music is going" – but live interactivity is a genuine possibility in VR. This could be anything from choosing which band member to listen to in a live video, to allowing punters to reach out and feel their virtual environment using controllers like the Oculus Touch or the HTC Vive controllers. 

"That is what excites me: in four, five or ten years, when people release an album, they will also release an interactive experience," Matchett says. "I would like it if in a new years, everyone had a VR experience for their album or even instead of their album." 

Koosha’s VR album, which will be released for free, will also follow a loose narrative thread, an approach that taps into the wider vogue of VR as a tool for storytelling as seen in recent excursions into VR journalism. For Peter Martin, an established journalist and documentary maker, this was the key to his VR work with Run The Jewels. "The band’s manager Amaechi explained they had done videos for every track off the album except for ‘Crown’, which was their most personal song. He told me, ‘We hadn’t figured out a way of telling that story in a video, so let’s try VR,’" Martin explains.

In ‘Crown’, the RTJ duo of El-P and Killer Mike recount separate stories of drug dealing and life in the military and Martin decided to use the spacial possibilities of VR to relate both. "In VR you are not entirely sure what people are looking at," he says. "You have to represent a story in a different way. I thought, ‘Why not use the four corners?’".

Björk’s approach to VR took a similarly literal bent. Her VR clip for ‘Stonemilker’ transports viewers to the same Icelandic beach, Grótta, where she composed the song. "As you watch this in the Virtual Reality headset it will be as if you are on that beach and with the 30 players sitting in a circle tightly around you," she said in a statement. 

Björk, of course, has sold millions of records. She can certainly afford VR. But what about the smaller acts, those without decades of back catalogue to rely on? How did Run The Jewels, for example, manage to fund a slick VR production? "We lucked out because we had a director like Peter for free and the studio [Wevr] paid for it," explains Run The Jewels manager Amaechi Uzoigwe. Similarly, MelodyVR bears the cost of producing VR film for musicians, with any eventual profits split between Melody and the various rights holders.

But that does not mean it is impossible for artists to produce VR by themselves, as Koosha’s experience proves. "When you think about it [VR], you think of a team of 100 people in a game company trying to do something like this," Koosha says. "But I was so fascinated by this idea that I thought, ‘Let’s do a prototype, maybe let’s start using basic coding, basic game engines that are available nowadays.’"

"If you had high-end techy friends and a copy of [game engines] Unity and Unreal, you could code something pretty cool [in VR]," says Matchett. "That is really high end, with a background in software development. But these days creative people have these skills."

360-degree video, on the other hand, is relatively easy to make and distribute. 360 video might be best thought of as a little brother to VR, in that it allows you to view a scene from almost any angle but it does not require a headset to view it. That makes it less immersive than VR and easier to make: Samsung, for example, launched the Samsung Gear 360 camera earlier this year, allowing anyone to film in 360. The results can then be uploaded onto YouTube, which added support for 360 video in March 2015.

Opinions are divided on 360 video among VR makers – some consider it rather underwhelming, others as an important step forward in the evolution towards full-on VR. But most agree that it is set to make an imminent impact. "360 film making is going to be massive," Martin says. "Everyone will be filming their Coachella experience with their Samsung 360. It’s like the new YouTube."

Zora Jones, a Barcelona producer who used animated 360 video to accompany her 100 Ladies EP, explains the appeal of the format for her. "It makes the video I’m watching feel a little more ‘immersive’ – I can decide where I want to look, like in real life, and am not restricted to just one predetermined field of view," she says. "From a design perspective it’s fun as well, because there’s a lot more room to explore and it’s a challenge to make the animation compelling from all angles."

Then there’s Mixed Reality and Augmented Reality (AR). Marketing people at tech companies will spend hours arguing the differences between the two but they both essentially layer digital information over your real-world view. In AR this information tends to be more practical, like text messages or instructions; Mixed Reality, on the other hand, overlays VR-style virtual objects on your view, so you can sit down at a real pub table and watch animated animals pop up and play Gnod covers on it.

The key to Mixed Reality / AR is that you can watch it while on the move, rather than having to sit down to take it in, VR-style. Peter Martin thinks that this could help Mixed Reality and AR make an impact on music over and above that of VR. "People aren’t necessarily sitting down listening to music anymore," he says. "If you add on a music video layer to your environment is could be very powerful."

He might be right. But isn’t it nice to think of people sitting back to immerse themselves in a VR musical world where 100% concentration is required? Where experiencing recorded music is your actual goal, rather than a convenient add on? Where VR headsets, headphones and even a SubPac (which Run The Jewels have experimented with) can take you to a new level of musical immersion?

True, VR could end up as just another gimmick. But people said the same about video calling and fingerprint sensors, which are both mainstream today, after advances in technology brought down the cost. It’s not hard to imagine VR following a similar path.

Equally, you might not want to visit an all encompassing musical universe where you are immersed in U2 or Muse. And even those who work in musical VR recognise the limits of the current VR crop. But imagine a trip, say, into the filthy mind of Perc as he cranks up the futuristic electrical grot;  or a VR trip into Haxan Cloak horror; or a 360 excursion into the Pet Shop Boys’ dayglo musical magic. 

That may not be on the cards right now. But that – or something like it – is not that far off. Someone soon is going to crack musical VR. And the smart money is on that being an innovative, future-thinking artist like Ash Koosha rather than four arena rockers from Leicester.

Ash Koosha plays the ICA on 4th June. For more information go here

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