We strapped on a headset and tried it for ourselves.
In 2014 interview with The Verge, William Gibson observed that technology has rendered our traditional understanding of location increasingly obsolete. "[When] geography slowly dissolves into the digital...it gets very interesting," said the science fiction author, when asked about the advent of virtual reality. "Because if you can sit in a hangar in Kansas and fly a drone bomber over Pakistan, and give yourself really bad jet lag by doing that long enough, where are we actually?"
Gibson's s 1984 cyberpunk classic Neuromancer was the first novel to popularize the notion of virtual reality, though he credits sci-fi pioneer Harlan Ellison with an earlier version of the idea. At the time of the book's publication, the idea of spending time in a purely digital space was fantasy—no longer, though. Everything from dating to sports gambling to chatting with our coworkers can now take place online—and with the advent of immersive virtual reality headsets capable of broadcasting live event streams, concerts seem to be the next frontier.
TheWaveVR is an Austin-based company founded earlier this year that is bringing virtual reality technology to the music industry with a new DJing platform of the same name. TheWaveVR is an online app that you can access through a variety of virtual reality headsets, including the HTC Vive ($800), Samsung Gear VR ($100), and Google Cardboard ($15). Thrifty gamers should note that only the Vive—which comes with wireless controllers—will allow you to DJ; the others can be used merely to watch someone else play a set.
"Basically it's a virtual venue in the cloud where someone can go into this venue and DJ," explained Adam Arrigo, one of the company's founders. "The audience can be networked in from anywhere in the world and actually be virtually represented in this venue and interact with each other, dance and watch this concert. The goal is to bring people together but also create this new type of experience."
TheWaveVR has received $2.5 million in Silicon Valley funding and is headed for a release on VR headset-enabled devices sometime near the end of the year. Its three founders, who are all musicians, have extensive experience at the intersection of music and technology—Arrigo worked for Harmonix, the gaming company behind Rock Band; Finn Staber and Aaron Lemke are both Austin-based game designers who specialize in virtual reality. The company also employs David Wexler (aka Strangeloop) as an advisor—Wexler is an artist from Los Angeles, CA, who has crafted live visuals for artists like Flying Lotus and Skrillex. Clarke Nordhauser, who makes bubbly video game-inspired music as Grimecraft, works for the start-up as a "product evangelist."
Last Friday I dropped by TheWaveVR's temporary office—a room in a large suite on the top floor of a Midtown office building belonging to one of TheWaveVR's investors, a venture capital firm called RRE Ventures—and sat down with Arrigo for a demonstration of the platform.
Before strapping me into the headset, Arrigo explained the TheWaveVR's premise—allowing people to listen to music together in an immersive digital space—in more detail. His explanation reminded me of a short-lived site called Turntable.fm, an early 2010s hangout spot that allowed users to start their own DJ chat rooms and play songs for anyone who stumbled in (you can take a look at Blockparty, the new app from the founder of Turntable, here). For many, hanging out in the chat rooms and watching other people spin was as much if not more fun than playing records yourself. Arrigo anticipates a similar dynamic with TheWaveVR. He thinks more than half of users won't be DJing much at all—instead, he hopes to recruit major EDM artists like Skrillex and Deadmau5 to virtual concerts from their living room.
Prior to my experience with TheWaveVR, I'd tried virtual reality once, on a friend's Oculus Rift a few years ago. I found the concept intriguing but the actual experience unfulfilling; the games available at the time were not particularly interactive—more like short films to marvel at than experiences to dive into. The inconsistent depth of field also left me seasick. But last week, when I slipped on TheWaveVR's headset, which uses the HTC Vive device, I was immediately transported to a seamless, crystal-clear virtual environment. I felt completely cut off from the physical world. From my first perspective in an endless black plane that stretched in every direction, the only parts of myself I could see were my hands.
Arrigo explained that a secondary function of TheWaveVR is to act as an interface for people to program music [in a 3D environment?]. In front of me, a grid of empty cubes floated in space, with a band of light passing over them on a loop. Putting my hand inside any of the boxes and pulling the trigger on the controller turned the box on; when the band of light swept across it, the box made a different sound. Different nodes on the vertical axis represented different instruments—drums, synths, guitars, and more—and the horizontal axis affected pitch. In no time at all, I'd built a rudimentary loop. It felt kind of like Garageband in three dimensions—a deceptively simple and fun way to make beats.
Then Arrigo pressed a button and I was transported to the main event—the DJ experience. Again, a black plane stretched in all directions—but this time, I stood on a platform looking out over a crowd of motionless anime-esque cats, who stood in a field surrounded on all sides by pulsing waves of color. Arrigo explained that when the project goes live, the cats will serve as the avatars for members of the audience tuning in to a DJ set. (Turntable.fm used similar two-dimensional cartoon constructs to represent people in the chat room). As for the tunnel of light flowing past the cats, Arrigo noted that when I played a song, the colors would pulse in tune with the song's waveform. The aesthetic landed somewhere between Minecraft, iTunes visualizer, and Takashi Murakami. For a sense of what it looks like, check out Ninja Tune's experimental maven Ash Koosha performing at the ICA London using TheWaveVR—the visuals displayed behind him are a two-dimensional version of what the game looks like, only in black-and-white.
I looked around, and located my DJ set-up floating in front of my face. It looked similar to the interface from programs like Traktor and Virtual DJ, except in three dimensions—two clear boxes positioned to my left and right acted as decks, and the tunes at my disposal were represented by an array of bubbles arranged in rows, each labeled by BPM. These included a selection of 128 BPM tech-house tunes and a few rows full of faster 140 and 150 BPM jams, including Rustie's "Triadzzz" and Skrillex's remix of Benny Benassi's "Cinema."
When I placed a bubble inside either of the decks and clicked my controller, the track would start playing. Sure enough, as I soon I did so, the colors flowing around the "audience" pulsed hypnotically in time. When two songs were playing at the same time I could use the faders floating in between the decks in front of me to execute a rudimentary transition. Arrigo explained that the service is working on developing software to allow users to do real-time beat-matching. For now, tracks of the same BPM sync automatically.
Another button on the controller switched my perspective into that of an avatar in the crowd—I could see myself DJing, represented by a cat. When I waved my arms in real life, I watched the arms of the cat DJ on the stage above me wave. The experience felt deeply uncanny. Arrigo explained that this would allow DJs who use the platform to walk around in the audience while performing—"Skrillex could meet people in the crowd and give them power-ups, like fire-spinning or the ability to fly."
According to Arrigo, OWSLA heavyweights like Mija and Kill the Noise have also tested early versions of the product. I asked him who the youngest person to try it out was. "This 12-year-old kid who Skrillex is mentoring tried it and loved it," Arrigo said. "He understood it intuitively—within an hour he was making better transitions than anyone." And the oldest? "Roseanne Cash just tried it. She wants to show it to Elvis Costello!"
The real fun began when Arrigo showed me how the filters work. Boxes to my left and right served as a lowpass filter and bitcrusher. When I moved my hand around inside of them, the effect would increase or decrease depending on height and depth. A quick jab through the box produced a punch of static. What's more, whenever either of the filters were engaged, the visuals would also be affected; the bitcrusher, for example, turned everything in ishgt—the cats, the DJ set-up, and the tunnel of light—into a pixelated blur. A seamless combination of Wii Golf and Virtual DJ, it offered an immersive audiovisual experience far beyond twisting knobs.
As I played tracks and strolled among the stationary cats, Arrigo told me more about the product's genesis and his larger ambitions for it. "VR is an opportunity is to get people's focus or attention back on music," he observed, adding that he hopes TheWaveVR will offer an alternative to the distracted kind of listening that takes place on streaming services. "Now, we love Spotify, but that takes your attention away from the music—you're just doing a ton of shit while listening to it. With VR, you put this headset on and [the music] is all you can focus on—You can get people to appreciate it again."
He gave me an example of a concert scenario powered by TheWaveVR. "Let's say Deadmau5 is up in Toronto at his house playing a set," he explained. "His likeness and music are captured and streamed in the cloud [as a hologram?], and you have warehouses full of people wearing positionally tracked headsets and AR glasses."
Arrigo went on to describe a future where the rise of "incredibly immersive synesthetic experiences" had rendered the current concert model—people standing together in a room—a distant relic. "I can see someday looking back and thinking about the fact that the only way to experience live music was to get together in the same physical space, and thinking 'Oh, that's so crazy'," he said, "in the same way it's hard to remember a world before all of your friends' information was available on Facebook. I think immersive entertainment is going to change the way people perceive what live music is."
It's easy to be cynical about the latest shiny new tech bauble—Silicon Valley is bursting with whippersnappers pushing "disruptive" new ideas, many of which end up on the junk pile (sorry, Turntable.fm). Still, if the price for the platform as well as the HTC Vive ends up somewhere affordable, I won't be too surprised if TheWaveVR does in fact become a widely adopted way to attend concerts. Clearly, people crave the trappings of the live experience, even if it's a digital one viewed from afar—just look at the success of Boiler Room—and according to Arrigo, virtual reality provides a whole new "decentralization of what a live show can be." Whether that turns out to be a good thing only time will tell, but there's one thing we can say for sure—the future is already here. You just need to strap on a headset to see it.