On Sept. 30, music fans around the world donned virtual reality (VR) headsets to attend a Steve Aoki concert as avatars inside a dreamy, three-dimensional virtual reality cityscape filled with sky-high buildings, neon-colored trees and a levitating stage. The event was produced by Supersphere, the VR events company which has produced concerts for acts like Billie Eilish and Paul McCartney for the past five years. But to founder Lucas Wilson, something was noticeably different this time.
“This is the first time I’ve been at a [VR] show where I saw people that in the real world were obviously up dancing: Their hands were flying; they were moving around,” Wilson says. “One other avatar came over and slapped me a high five, and we were dancing together in virtual space.”
Broadcast from the Facebook-owned Oculus Venues platform for VR entertainment, it was also the first concert to employ ArcRunner: Supersphere’s new platform which allows artists and their creative teams to build custom VR performance spaces, lending scale and cost efficiency to a technology that has traditionally been bespoke and expensive. Aoki created a brand-new environment for his set, but ArcRunner can also be used to replicate an artist’s physical stage setup, and even perform inside a digitally-rendered replica of an existing real-world music venue. During each performance, lighting directors, visual artists, audio engineers and more crew members can use ArcRunner to operate the virtual stage in real-time, just as they would at a physical show.
It’s a lot to digest — and Wilson and his business partner, Supersphere executive producer Doug Allenstein, know it. While Oculus Venues launched in 2018, and VR concerts have existed for years prior, the much-hyped format has two high barriers to entry: The concept is difficult to explain to consumers and business partners alike, and the headgear required is expensive (the cheapest Oculus version costs $299). But as fan expectations continue to raise the bar for virtual shows amid the coronavirus pandemic, the music industry is on the hunt for new ways to make those shows as immersive as possible. With a new platform like ArcRunner, which promises to make VR experiences more attainable than ever, could the music industry finally latch on to VR for good?
While Facebook does not release viewership numbers for Oculus Venues shows, the potential audience for VR concerts is bound by the number of headsets sold — a number that’s growing exponentially. According to statistics database Statista, more than 5.5 million augmented reality (AR) and VR headsets will be sold in 2020, and the technologies are predicted to sell more than 26 million units per year by 2023. In September, the International Data Corporation’s quarterly report on worldwide VR headset sales projected that following a coronavirus-related decline of 6.7% in 2020, the market for VR headsets will return to double-digit growth of 46.2% in 2021. While gaming continues to drive consumer headset sales, the IDC report cites virtual concerts among the use cases “starting to resonate with buyers.”
“The biggest overall zeitgeist challenge is acceptance of VR in the marketplace. But I believe that we’re past that,” Wilson says. “Immersive content went through a hype-curve phase, and now it’s come out of the trough and it’s on its way up to being accepted. And we can prove that out.”
The path to ArcRunner
A tech industry veteran of nearly two decades, Wilson traces his fascination with VR concerts to the moment he put on a headset to watch a performance by heavy metal icons Megadeth in 2015, and suddenly found himself in frontman Dave Mustaine’s backyard, mere feet away from the performer. Far more immersive than watching a livestreamed concert on a screen, VR shows allow an unlimited number of fans from around the world to interact with a 360-degree, three-dimensional environment as avatars, speaking to each other through a microphone embedded in the headset.
“This entire [music] industry is based around generating an emotion and connecting with people — that’s it,” Wilson says. “When I put on that headset, that was the quickest that something has ever connected with me in such a short period of time.”
He launched Supersphere in Los Angeles that same year, and brought on Allenstein, a veteran video and live events producer, soon after. “My original interest was that there was a chance for a new medium that had no rules,” Allenstein says. “I had been doing commercials and music videos and things were just becoming cookie-cutter. Suddenly I got woken up again, like, ‘Oh my god, I can actually make some difference here.'”
The duo clinched several high-profile VR projects in 2016, including an interview with Michelle Obama in the White House and six-part docu-series profiling McCartney in his private home studio. “In the early days of VR, there were a lot of companies that raised a ton of money in the hype bubble, but had no production experience,” Wilson explains. “We were out there doing jobs and delivering, instead of just selling smoke and mirrors.” Largely through word-of-mouth, the entirely self-funded company has since worked on everything from a VR version of a September 2019 Eilish concert in Madrid to a partnership with the 2019 South by Southwest conference and music festival in Austin, which included more than 50 hours of VR performances from more than 90 bands. (While Wilson declines to reveal specifics of the company’s business plan, Supersphere essentially makes money by licensing its VR performances to platforms like Oculus Venues.)
As is typical with VR events, those productions required months of legwork. That’s why with ArcRunner, which has been in development for about eight months, Supersphere aims to make the technology more approachable and easy-to-use for artists than ever before.
To create the platform, Supersphere rendered an electronic version of every piece of equipment an artist might rent for a physical tour, from speakers to lighting grids to LED panels, creating a catalog of dozens of digital assets. “Imagine that everything that would go in a 10-truck tour could now just be sitting in your Google Drive inbox,” explains Allenstein. Once in the ArcRunner platform, artists and teams can operate those digital assets just like real ones, but for less money and hassle. The concept also creates job opportunities for currently out-of-work tour crew members.
ArcRunner shows can be live or pre-recorded, ticketed or not — it’s all up to the artists, who work with Supersphere’s team of producers to fulfill their creative vision, whether that means building a new universe from scratch or replicating an existing stage set-up. The latter option allows artists who sidelined their 2020 tours due to the pandemic to still make use of stage graphics and other assets. Major Lazer partnered with Supersphere to pre-record an Oculus Venues gig set for Nov. 18 on a green-screen-covered stage, joined by their actual tour dancers, which will appear exactly like their usual touring set-up to headset-wearing attendees.
“You would sit with us and say, ‘Here’s an example of our tour show at Red Rocks [Amphitheater],’ and we’ll set it up for you, exactly like you set it up when you’re there,” Allenstein says. “That way, when you plug in your board, you’re operating in a physical world, but manifesting changes in the virtual world. You’re controlling your actual tour with actual products.”
“This has never been done before”
Eventually, artists will be able to use the ArcRunner platform to design and host shows with little involvement from Supersphere itself. The company is also working on a digital library of close to 500 virtual replicas of venues across the globe for ArcRunner artists to perform in — a concept Wilson and Allenstein tested while working on last summer’s “Audiophile Series” of shows across replicas of historic New Orleans music venues like Preservation Hall.
But the technology — and the industry surrounding it — need time to develop before either of those plans can come to fruition.
“Right now, we need to be doing the production, because we need to prove that they’re good shows. The worst thing that can happen to a technology is you release it before it’s ready, and people start delivering crap,” Allenstein explains. “But eventually, when this tool gets into the hands of musicians and creators, they’re going to create stuff that we’ll never think of, and that’s the beauty of [it].”
Because the VR concert industry is so young, Wilson adds, there isn’t one established way of drawing up contracts with artists or even standard price-point for ticketed shows. Much of copyright law predates VR — and even livestreaming — which has led to confusion and disagreement over which music licenses are needed to broadcast performances. For the time being, Wilson says the company is handling licensing on a case-by-case basis, and does not have broad licensing deals in place with labels or publishers.
The company’s attempt to digitally replicate concert venues leads to its own thorny set of questions. Who owns the copyright to a venue structure when rendered digitally, and how much should the owner be paid when a digital replica is made? Supersphere has already scanned “a bunch” of spaces, Wilson says, but he’s “now figuring out the business and the legal end, because this has never been done before.”
Despite those challenges, Lucas and Allenstein envision a future in which it is common for an artist to add a VR date to their physical touring schedule, allowing global fans to take part. And as the format gains acceptance, they argue that the options for monetization will only proliferate, including advertising inside virtual venues and selling both physical and virtual merch during shows.
Supersphere faces stiff competition from the likes of Wave, the popular VR company that has worked with artists like The Weeknd and John Legend and counts the likes of superstar manager Scooter Braun and Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin as investors. Whereas Supersphere’s Aoki and Major Lazer shows are exclusive to the Oculus Venues app and require a headset to view (Supersphere itself is a platform-agnostic service), Wave is one of several VR companies which also simulcast performances in 2-D on YouTube, a strategy intended to help ease consumers into the VR experience. Another rival which enables 2-D viewing through its app is MelodyVR, the startup which has music licensing deals with Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, and which acquired Napster for $70 million in August.
But Allenstein says that Supersphere welcomes competition in the VR space, since with an industry this nascent, every success story helps prove the overall format’s value. “We can have turf wars in 20 years over who gets this job or that job, but now is not really the time for picking each other apart — it’s time to be supportive,” he says. That’s true especially during the pandemic, which he says has offered companies like Supersphere a chance to demonstrate their worth to the music industry, both during this time and far into the future.
“Fifty years from now, COVID may or may not be a subject, but this additional place that people can go to experience live things is still going to be there, and be a million times better than it is now,” he adds. “When [the pandemic is] over, we’ll be back to battling for the eyeballs. But the hope is that if you stop at New York and New Jersey and Virginia and Baltimore, then maybe you do a night in Oculus Venues, and it’s on your tour dates.”