Your Favourite Artist Playing in your Living Room — the Rise of VR

Science fiction is a dangerous game. Writers promise futuristic technology that fundamentally changes the way we interact with the world, and they discuss this technology existing in impossibly far away times. But, despite how advanced our technology has become, we didn’t actually create sufficiently advanced AI to cause Judgement Day on August 29th, 1997. And, most depressingly of all, we didn’t have real, genuine hover boards available by October 21st, 2015.

But it does appear that science fiction was right about one thing; after a series of false starts in the 80’s and 90’s, we are entering the age of Virtual Reality (VR), and it is already having an effect on the way we consume music. VR is experienced using a headset over the eyes and headphones for the audio. These deceptively simple accessories can transport the user “inside” a virtual world within which they can look around in any direction. Essentially, it feels like you’re somewhere else, and depending on the presence of the VR in question (the extent to which it feels like you are there), you can become completely submerged in that world.

It’s likely you’ve heard some stories, or seen the 360 degree YouTube videos; VR is widely considered to be the next fundamental shift in technology, it is likely to be the next computing platform, following on from mobile and desktop computers before it. To be clear, 2016 is not going to be the year of VR. It is still easy enough to ignore VR completely if it doesn’t interest you. But it is a hugely important year for VR as it takes stumbling steps towards mainstream acceptance.

We’ve already seen in the past year or so the mainstream adoption of Augmented Reality (AR), the layering of technology and a virtual world over our own. The success of Snapchat (and it’s genuinely addictive filters) has led to a valuation of around $20billion. On top of that, Pokémon Go has exploded in popularity, overtaking Tindr in number of installations within 2 days.

But music has been augmenting our reality for years. The first AR device many of us owned was a Walkman. Walking to work listening to your favourite musician augments and changes your experience of the walk. Some of us, myself included, can’t imagine leaving the house without our headphones. What we are seeing with the global AR acceptance in recent times is a development of the technology, not of the format.

By the same token, music as a format doesn’t have to require a change in format to embrace VR, unlike other industries such as gaming, for example. The big difference is that the technology will augment our ability to experience existing formats inherent in the music industry, whether that’s listening to music, watching videos, or attending live shows. While it won’t completely change music, it is likely the next frontier for digital and it will most certainly shake up the music industry.

When it comes to music, VR can be used to give users the experience of being part of the band and experiencing the music in a live environment. Biffy Clyro, the Scottish rock band whose 7th album recently went straight to the top of the charts in UK and Ireland, have announced that their next video will be VR. The project, done in conjunction with Samsung, will be available in multiple festivals across the UK and will allow audiences to walk among the band while performing their new single “Flammable”.

More interestingly, VR can be used in a much more abstract way, allowing a user to inhabit a drum sound, or watch a bass line as it rumbles passed. It is possible to use VR to allow users to experience music using a completely different sense, to watch music rather than just hear it. Album covers, music videos, even light shows have been used in an attempt to extend the musical experience beyond purely listening, VR will be able to take these efforts to its logical conclusion and create private audio-visual spaces for each listener.

There is also the possibility of manipulating objects in VR, through “desktop” VR experiences (where you are tethered to a PC that is processing your actions and movements, often with the aid of additional handheld motion controllers). This allows for creative input in VR, and this is where VR gets incredible exciting. Creative Input would allow users to actually make music with virtual instruments, whether it’s playing a virtual drum kit or manipulating a digital theremin. It could even be as bizarre as massaging and manipulating an existing soundwave, represented in the virtual world as a tide on the beach. As you build small breakwaters by piling sand or rocks, or even digging pathways, you influence the sound and effect of the music. Imagine creating music and allowing your fans to enter into their own copy of the album to play with it and play along with it. It is legitimately mind boggling to consider the applications that VR could have in music, let alone in the wider world.

There are a few areas that are the most obvious places for VR to have an impact on music, particular in relation to increasing revenue for the artists:

Music Videos

We have already seen an example of increasingly immersive music videos with the new Biffy Clyro single mentioned above. But music videos aren’t merely going to become immersive. As VR increases in mainstream adoption, the business models around music videos will evolve as well. Music videos to date have always had a dual identity, existing not just as a discrete product to be sold but also as promotion for the band. More advanced business models that could spring up from VR adoption could include the ability to pay to view the video from multiple different perspectives, or even the ability to create and colour the music video in real time with users impacting the product itself.

Live Concerts

Being able to experience Live Concerts remotely will create huge revenue opportunities for artists. By having crews with 3D cameras and creating a VR construction of the show, fans can experience their favourite artists from their living room. Whether it’s creating a subscription service or licensing fees, there are huge opportunities for artists.

Music Creation

VR doesn’t need to adhere to real world physics, which means that we are only limited by our imagination when it comes to designing VR instruments and interfaces. This digital environment would allow us to create soundscapes that are impossible in the real world, that are dynamic and reactive to the user, and that are constantly morphing and evolving. In the same way that audio software and technology advancements led to a huge EDM scene that created music that we couldn’t have previously imagined, so too will VR allow us to further push the boundaries of what we can create.

The next few years are a very exciting time. It’s no longer a question of if, but when VR achieves mass adoption and this will create entirely new revenue streams and industries. As it currently stands, Samsung are giving away Gear VR headsets to new users, and companies such as Oculus and Sony are actively accelerating their adoption by selling their products at a loss.

The technology is there, but the way it can be used is still to be defined. A lot of the innovation in this area in music is coming from the fringes, from technology start ups looking to disrupt the current industry standards. There are so many different applications and ideas that this technology could be used for that we haven’t even considered yet.

The audience right now is comparatively small, but it is growing fast and it is very vocal and eager to innovate. It’s brand new ground, and there are going to be some missteps, but who cares? Embrace this technology in its infancy, learn from the mistakes, and we can bring music to a whole new platform for both creators and consumers.

Virtual Reality is not just science fiction any more.

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