Sam Rolfes is a Chicago and New York-based digital artist who uses VR tools in his work, including videos he's made for Amnesia Scanner, Danny L Harle/Caroline Polachek, and Rihanna's VMA performance (yes, really). Here, he wades through the Silicon Valley bullshit to asses the truly "disruptive" ways VR could change how we experience music—if the technology can overcome the obstacles currently clogging its clumsy ascent.—Michelle Lhooq
Illustrations by the author
2016 wasn't quite TheYearofVirtualReality despite what the starry-eyed press mused. It was, perhaps, more the year of taking photos of bewildered people wearing headsets and making asses out of themselves. VR promos nearly vibrate off the screen with the sheer force of their earnest aspiration, leveraging your desperation for a more meaningful digital experience with enough buzzwords to get any tech blog editor rock hard in seconds. Ads tend to show excited newcomers donning headsets and generally losing their shit while their friends stare at them bemusedly. This actually demonstrates one of the inherent weaknesses of the VR format right now: we haven't quite figured out how to make it a social experience. Beyond providing fodder for Snapchat, what form is VR really going to take as it wriggles further into our daily lives?
VR has the potential to be a game-changing tool for expression and communication. But it is also part of a self-inflating hype cycle of emergent tech tools that require enough people to buy into the developers' (and investors') vision of the future. It is therefore the solemn duty of digital artists like myself to wade through the bullshit, and determine VR's actual capacity to be a revolutionary creative medium—along with the hurdles in the way of implementing those lofty ideas.
In its search for a better future, dance music likes to flirt with the idea of technology as a transcendent force for leaving the fetters of the corporeal world behind, if only briefly. It only makes sense that a format like VR, based around many of the same escapist ideals, would be embraced by this industry. That said, there aren't very many examples out there of VR being used in electronic music contexts.
The club space is a venue of intense identity performance, and VR could allow more agency for embodying different liquid personas.
Several excellent, forward-thinking electronic music fests with heavy emphasis on new media, like VIA Fest in Pittsburgh, Day for Night in Houston, and Sub Chroma in Chicago have recently started offering VR experiences, but often relegate the headsets to different rooms from the main music acts, treating the technology like the sideshow freak it currently is. (Funnily enough, this isn't without precedent, as VR games were a common side attraction at early 90s raves, particularly in San Francisco.) But at least these festivals involve actual VR—rather than mislabeling a 360 video app under a pile of marketing copy like some others do.
Out of the handful of VR-equipped electronic music games that do exist, many of the most compelling examples place you inside abstracted instrument spaces, such as my favorite, Playthings. There's also Soundstage VR, and rhythm games like Rez Infinite (despite the glaring absence of its most important controller, the Trance Vibrator).
TheWaveVR is an admirable, EDM-soaked attempt that's like an (even more) awkward Silent Disco. According to the company's co-founder, it is like "a virtual venue... where someone can DJ [and] the audience can be networked in from anywhere in the world [to] interact with each other." The game has attracted plenty of attention, but it has limitations: If more than one person tried to play in the same room, this could end up yielding more of a mosh pit than the developers intended, since interaction between dancers—such as knowing everyone's location so you aren't blindly knocking heads—is technically challenging to pull off on a large scale with current tracking schemes. Similarly, this VR experience by the Embassy of Dutch Creativityuses the same Gear VR headset as TheWaveVR, but lacks the processing power for complex imagery.
But that's all fine! Everything's fine! While VR is still largely in its "cool tech demo fodder" stage, there are signs that the technology is on the way to becoming more integrated in the real world. HTC just debuted a wireless headset for their Vive system at CES this year, which would solve the problem of multiple players in the same space colliding, assuming it works in as fluctuating a situation as the dancefloor.
Often the visual language in dance music, for both promotional media and concert visuals, falls into two categories: utilitarian minimalism (white labels, bold record sleeves with stylized lettering), or kaleidoscopic "psychedelia" (maximalist shapes, objects, visualizing scenes that exist for titillation or eye candy value—AKA "Winampwave"). VR as it stands now is a continuation of this latter camp of body-driven psychedelia, via its (often technologically mandated) overreliance on making cool shit spin around and change colors for their own sake. (There's a history of VR being explored as a more literal form of psychedelia and visually-borne transcendence, even if the efficacy of that link is rather tenuous in practice.)
Regardless of the aesthetic choices involved, VR in dance music often has the same goal: providing a sensory substructure by allowing viewers to catch onto some semi-coherent object in their minds as the swirl of musical abstraction flows around them. But it has one key hang up: a tacit denial of the audience-as-performer's body, or at least ignoring everything save for their head and hands. VR ejects the club space as the arena for the narrative to play out and injects its own interpretation. It may one day allow for even more meaningful dialogue and experience in this setting, but it's got a lot of infrastructural and tech barriers before it gets there.
There's a connection between VR and gloving, hooping, all that shit—in the way that myriad permutations of expression have developed from a few simple pieces of technology.
That said, VR is perhaps more within the jurisdiction of real-time experience than album art; it has more in common with club uplighting, strobes, and projections due to its IRL relationship to the participant and the music. There are increasingly more complex elaborations of AV within clubs, such as 3D projection mapping and video, with increasing creative input from DJs and producers. All of this means there's rich ground for progressing the visual conversation in dance music; the trick is getting VR formatted into a state where it can be used with similar ease.
To borrow some buzzwords from venture capitalists, the truly disruptive paradigm shift that VR offers to dance music is an expressive interaction language based on the body's orientation and performance. This self-elevation of audience members to be performers and contributors to the overall experience, along with the direct correlation between the movements of the viewer/listener and the resulting visual experience, is a vital upending of roles that speaks to the potential for transformational user-guided experience in VR.
In a way, there's a connection between VR and the burner and other rave communities—gloving, hooping, all that shit—in the way that myriad permutations of expression have developed from a few simple pieces of technology, as well as refigured and developed over the years because of its ease of use and immediate visual payoff. This link serves as the backbone for the true potential of the medium: recasting the audience member or viewer as the director of their reality (and potentially the reality of others)—and the diverse stories that can result.
The truly disruptive paradigm shift that VR offers to dance music is an expressive interaction language based on the body's orientation and performance.
Notice how I keep saying "potentially"? The music venue or club space is also a venue of intense identity performance, and VR could allow more agency for embodying different liquid personas and roles. However, this would require a multiplayer infrastructure that, in its current stage, is still in its awkward infantile stages. Before you upend the concept of concrete identity, you have to be able to depict or articulate identity with more nuance, and do so without people choking to death on their own headset cables before reaching their life-altering epiphany.
Virtual reality hasn't been able to make that leap into the rarefied space of the club in a very meaningful way yet, but that won't stop me in continuing in a long tradition of masturbatory futurist fever dreams guessing about what future could be. I now present for your consideration, Several Exciting Futures for VR in Dance Music. Invest now!
1. BYOVR to the venue. Outbreaks of face scabies erupt in the underground dance community as VR headsets are shared around from person to person.
2. The concept of a concrete identity is further eroded as shifting perceptions of self awareness develop, but you're still stuck wandering around servers trying to find where the party at, and infinite 360-bioresponsive-3d-printed- drone-controlled-mind-sync'd-swarm-mind experiences are available at your fingertips but paying for your virtual avatar to look good in 'em costs an arm and a leg.
3. Club kids quickly develop a stereotype for the thick necks required to hold up the heavy visual screens strapped to their heads for several hours at a time. Venue floors are slicked with vomit from motion sickness, and rhythmic gymnastics gains new relevance in this bright future, as dance moves adapt to accommodate the miles of cabling snaking their way throughout the dancefloor.
4. Clubs and gathering spots are vacated in favor of staying at home and logging into multiplayer experiences, enjoyed while lying in piles of furniture-debris created from constantly crashing into them while getting hype in VR.
5. Mosh pits become the norm because there's only 4 headsets available for the whole party, and entrepreneurs weave through dancefloors extolling the power of changing your identity through VR like religious missionaries proclaiming the rapturous future ahead.
6. The comedown is way rougher when your identity's been shred and put back together polygon by polygon:
Follow Sam Rolfes on Twitter