FastForward: 5 Questions raised at Mobile AR/VR: Building Interactive Audiences
Two years ago, I walked around inside Bjork’s mouth.
The Icelandic artist had just released Bjork Digital, an immersive VR project for her eighth studio album, Vulnicura, and I was one of the lucky journalists to test-run a bunch of the exhibitions at Sydney’s Carriageworks.
At the time, it was incredibly cool (if not a little nauseating) to walk on the famed singer’s palate, and watch her dance around me as an ethereal, floating spectre in a 360-degree video clip.
That night, I headed to the Metro Theatre for a gig. Someone spilled beer down my back, my feet were trodden on multiple times, and I was covered in a lot of sweat – mostly other people’s.
As I fell asleep, it was the gig’s antics and not the interactive video, that was spinning around my mind.
This is the trade-off facing the music industry as we struggle to balance tradition with technology. On one hand, we have incredible and innovative marketing opportunities at our fingertips. Think street posters which use AR to show us intricate animations, or magazine ads which you can look at through your phone to watch the artist dancing on the table. These are budget-friendly options too – no exorbitantly priced YouTube pre-roll necessary.
Or what about the mind-blowing ways to consume music, like buying a ticket to a gig in London and experiencing it through totally immersive VR from your bedroom?
On the other hand… well… it is called virtual reality, after all. Call me old-fashioned, but I get the most joy from music when I’m right in the thick of it, beer-back and all.
AR and VR technologies are being designed with almost limitless possibilities and industries in mind. While advances in the spaces of health, IT and education, as well as general productivity, are integral for social progress, the realm of entertainment seems to be snowballing us away from our reality with little consideration for the social ramifications. It’s like the Tyrell Corporation’s motto from Blade Runner: “More human than human.” Now, it’s “More real than reality.”
Here are some of the questions that were raised for me by the mind-blowing FastForward keynote from David Francis, CEO and co-founder of Virtual Method.
First, what the heck is the difference between AR and VR?
Put simply, AR = augmented reality, whereby you don’t lose your surroundings – think Pokemon Go and Snapchat filters; and VR = virtual reality, in which you immerse yourself in another space totally shut off from your physical world.
So, how does this apply to music?
David warned that AR/VR can be a potential ally or enemy. It’s up to us to get educated before big tech like Google and Apple start seeking blanket licenses.
In a more practical sense, you’ve got everything from unique marketing opportunities as previously mentioned, to technologies like Alexa and Google Home taking over music curation as they learn to understand natural language. “Play me what you think I’d like,” is the new “Play me [insert song].”
Futuristically, the eradication of computers and instruments, as AR allows us to create using our hands, eyes and, apparently, thoughts. “Our children will ask ‘How did you work?!’ when we explain to them about 2D computer screens,” David joked. And, most notably progressive, the consumption of music, extending to the live experience. It’s already happening; Coachella has been using AR and VR for years, with select performances this year available to live stream in VR. A fully virtual musical “metaverse” has already been built by TheWave VR. The future is here, baby.
Will people actually use it?
The short answer: yes. Children are the most eager to use AR, having grown up with smart technology, and countries like China are well ahead in terms of both products and user engagement. When it comes to reluctance, David pointed out that while gear like Google Glass may look super dorky to some, the benefits and increase in productivity will not make it viable to go without once others start using it. “The difference between AR and AI,” he said, “is that AR enhances us as humans; AI tries to replace us.”
With regard to the music industry, marketing can benefit immediately from technology which is already widely available. He cites an AR strategy for Woolworths World Explorers which gave children access to educational videos when they scanned a poster. They had 1.6 million engagements. He estimated that YouTube pre-roll marketing cost would have been over a million dollars even before creative; the posters cost around 50K to print, package and distribute.
Okay, so the technology is cool and economical… but is it beneficial?
This is where I break off from what was discussed in David’s keynote.
The visions of the technologies’ capabilities – particularly when it came to music consumption and the gaming world – were so mind-blowing that I became unsettled by them.
The following is an outline of my thoughts on the use of this technology for entertainment purposes alone.
If my Instagram feed makes me feel this bad about myself already, then what would five hours a night as Queen B – slaying dragons and protecting my kingdom of beloved yellow minions – do to my sense of self?
What about the world we currently live in? Have we given up on it so absolutely that we would rather spend billions building ways to escape our reality than fix it? And that’s not to mention the loss of human connection. Just like the irony of social media, interacting with others in virtual spaces is only a hollow – albeit glossy – reflection of real relationships.
If the sight of a bus full of people straining their necks toward their phones isn’t disturbing enough, what about a bus full of people wearing face-sets and flailing their arms about in their own, cut-off realities? At least you can put down a phone and glance out a window.
I may sound like an old person terrified of touch screens, but I believe there is a point at which technological advancements become a barrier rather than an aid… Progress to the detriment of our humanity, of our mental health, is not progressing. I don’t agree that it’s just AI trying to replace us and AR/VR only ‘enhances’ us. When it displaces us entirely from the world we physically occupy, I think that’s doing the same thing.
Will VR ruin live music?
I’m split here.
Going to a festival or a gig is a right of passage. I have friends who are unable to attend festivals and live events due to disability or for mental health reasons. I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the opportunity for them to have these experiences with VR as the vehicle.
My first memory of a gig is getting smuggled at 16 into the venue in my mate’s drum carry case, my knees crushed around my ears.
The year I broke up with my first boyfriend I crowdsurfed at a local festival on the beach, ending my journey over the sea of people in the actual ocean.
Yes, I have a frame of all my lanyards. And I can look at every single one and tell you ten highlights.
I can’t ever imagine having a single notable story from a festival come to mind when I look at the headset I experienced it on.
I want the dust in my eyes, the vibration of the floor, the random mates from the mosh, the sight of a double-layered crowd atop each other’s shoulders, to scream along to my favourite song with thousands of others. And yes, I want the beer down my back. It’s all of these infinitesimal moments which make the experience of live music so magical, and so irreplicable.
So no, I don’t think VR will ever replace live music.
Then again, for those that disagree with me, I’d rather fight you in the virtual world. It’s my first week as Online Editor of TMN; be gentle.