Super-Humanizing: Virtual Reality, Music and the Coming Revolution

On Monday morning I drove by Candlestick Park as the first demolition crews set to work on the grand old thing. I was on my way to the Palo Alto office of a company called Jaunt, to strap an Oculus headset to my face and watch a fabulously newfangled live concert video from Paul McCartney's Aug. 14 show at Candlestick, billed as the venue's last major event.

Soon after I arrived I was led to a conference room where I sat in a comfortable rolling chair in the center of a conference room outfitted with computers and cables. Moments later I was just a few feet from Sir Paul as he banged and belted "Live and Let Die" to a crowd of tens of thousands. Did he just wink at me?

I swiveled the chair to watch drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr., bash as the band came in, and suddenly found myself looking down the front of the stage in a pyrotechnic storm. I'd been switched to camera two, basically placing me out in front on center stage. I looked out across the crowd. Somewhere in the virtual beyond, past that sea of faces and limbs, thousands of other ticket-holders would be stranded in a first-rate Bay Area traffic jam and never make it to the show. Here I was in a rolling chair right in the heart of it, a five-piece band staring at my backside as it built through the song's 'Roger-Moore-outfoxes-a-Harlem-voodoo-druglord' runs and climaxes. Tongues of fire and triumphantly choreographed stage-lighting rippled in my peripherals.

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The illusion of "being there" or "presence" is often invoked by VR enthusiasts. Did I feel like I was there? Not exactly. I felt like I was in the best movie theater of my life, though. The video resolution, sound and depth of field were remarkable. It took very little effort to suspend my disbelief.

Jaunt released the video today as a web app compatible with Google's Cardboard headset, with releases to come soon for Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift when those platforms get to market.

If three's a trend, it's worth noting that last week The Who launched a VR app, and the Swedish crooner Jose Gonzalez released a music video for the Rift the week before that. Earlier this week, Taylor Swift released a 360 degree music video for her single "Blank Space," a song which has since claimed the top position on Billboard's Hot 100.

The industry appears to staking some flags in the virtual frontier. It's already got a Beatle onboard. Could virtual reality be a new vertical to shore up the music industry's eroding profits?  

There's a lot of hope to go around in music these days, but not much money. Everyday brings a raft of new schemes to save the industry, to take advantage of 21st century technologies to rebuild the fantastic, articulated network of supply and distribution that arose on the back of technological progress in the 20th century.

The industry has been humbled in recent decades by the emergence of new platforms and media. In the early '90s, a number of the world's biggest musical acts, including U2, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie and Prince, lined up to jump in a ship-to-nowhere called "interactive media," releasing expensive CD-ROMs packed with the equivalent of today's DVD extras -- interactive studio tours, music videos, games, rudimentary mixing and recording tools, all kinds of listening options. 

It was perhaps the first example of labels, artists and computer coders working together in harmony toward the same imagined pot of money.

"Time Warner, Viacom, Sony, MCA, Paramount Fox, Phillips -- you name it -- they've all got an interactive strategy… in fact, refusing to acknowledge interactive music nowadays would be about as smart as pretending video didn't matter during the ascendency of MTV," Fred Davis wrote in a Wired magazine from the summer of 1993. 

Of course, those interactive music strategies didn't work out the way anyone planned. The idea of paying $50 a piece for musical CD-ROMs by your favorite artists never caught on, not least because the video and audio rendering of the products was lousy by the standards of traditional entertainment. Within a decade the industry was shaken at its foundations by the MP3, an ordeal from which it has yet to recover. Recently the 'interactive video' genre has reemerged quietly with impressive results in releases from the likes of Bob Dylan and Pharrell Williams.

The release of the interactive app to accompany Swift's "Blank Space," an effort that was underwritten by American Express, marks the long-delayed arrival of the medium that seemed just around the corner in 1993. In the app's press materials it is referred to as "an immersive journey with intertwined storylines, multiple rooms and dozens of hidden interactive features waiting to be unlocked and explored." This language could have been lifted directly from the early '90s froth around those CD-ROMs. The difference, of course, is that this time out the technology is much more convincing, even if the underlying idea remains the same.

Meanwhile, Virtual Reality is probably the hottest new development at the bleeding edge of consumer tech. This is mostly due to the excitement around the Oculus Rift, the former Kickstarter project bought by Facebook in March for $2 billion. Last week it was the subject of a South Park episode and a New York Times Magazine feature. Sony is developing a headset of its own, called Project Morpheus. Samsung is nearing release of the Gear VR, which like Google Cardboard is a headmount using a smartphone for its display.

This technology also had a fruitless run in the ‘90s, capturing the public imagination and soaring expectations from business interests, before fizzling out almost completely.

Ten ticks of Moore's law later, as a battery of new VR hardware makes ready to splash into the consumer market, and 360 degree video and audio recording equipment emerges, the two bygone trends are crackling with new life and seem set on a collision course.

Jaunt has developed its own camera and audio recording equipment, as well as the computational pipeline to render those inputs into an immersive 3D environment in a form that is compatible with more familiar editing tools. The company is interested in several potential verticals for cinematic VR including travel, education, real estate, news and sports. It's an engineering company, and is currently working in partnerships with filmmakers and artists to bring content to its consumer-facing app, available on Google Play.

In August it raised a $27.8 million Series B that included investments from Google Ventures and British television company BSkyB.

It has chosen to make the McCartney performance its first public release, an indication that some see music as a crucial vehicle to kickstart mainstream adoption of VR.

"We're talking about bootstrapping a whole ecosystem," said CEO Jens Christensen. "This is a call to action to the creative community saying ‘look what we can do.' How often do we see an entirely new medium?"

Music is somewhat incidental to the current VR craze, as the lion's share of the interest continues to come from the gaming community. Video games, of course, usually feature music, and sometimes prominently -- Paul McCartney has also just written and recorded a song for the end credits of the game Destiny. If Oculus and the virtual reality economy are to become colossal successes, though, they will need to reach a broader mainstream audience by enticing people with little interest in gaming. Music has just about the broadest appeal of anything, anywhere.

"We think music is just fantastic in virtual reality. You can connect emotionally with an artist and have that feeling of exclusive access," Christensen said.

Gaming is big business these days, but still a limited segment of consumer experience. Music, on the other hand, is as mainstream as it gets. Judging from the hype around Oculus, its staggering valuation and the speculation surrounding Facebook's intentions for it, there's a perception that we might be on the brink of something that revolutionizes much more than gaming.

Brian Shuster, the pioneer of the pop-up ad, put it the most hyperbolically in a piece for Wired.com last month:

"Virtual reality holds the promise to be even more transformative than the flat Web was -- reaching into every segment of every market and remaking it to be virtually accessible."

The logic seems to be that if a mainstream audience can only be lured to strap on the headsets, they'll be able to receive the message inherent in the medium, which can then sell itself into every recess of their lives. To this end, the world's most beloved musical artists function as exceedingly fragrant bait. Everybody loves music, soon most Americans will have smartphones. If Joe Schmo can be compelled to strap his phone to his face by the promise of a virtual rendezvous with Sir Paul, then this fringe craze for virtual reality could very quickly start looking like an impending cultural juggernaut on a Jobsian scale.

The technology is finally here. The question that remains is: Are we ready to take this step into an enclosing virtual universe? It could seem a bleak prospect, but for the fact that the new virtual reality has the potential to convey beautiful art.

The Oculus music video released earlier this month by Gonzalez presents another way this new medium could be used by artists; to create music videos or filmed experiences that exceed their 2D, directed-gaze ancestors in scope and wonder.

Of course, this art will only reach those willing to shell out for an Oculus Rift, or strap their smartphones to their faces with Google or Samsung's more basic offerings.

In that video, a 3D-camera-bearing balloon is released and ascends to the edge of Earth's atmosphere, to the spare and soothing accompaniment of Gonzalez' "Every Age." The viewer can spin around to take in the all the geography as it unfolds below.

It's a promising demonstration of how these new technologies can be matched with an idea and a soundtrack and deliver a piece of art greater than the sum of its components. If virtual reality musical experiences are successful, it would confirm the sagacity of Peter Gabriel as he is quoted in that Wired article 1993:

"I think that often the first generation of new technology can be dehumanizing; but the second generation can be super-humanizing."