From Paul McCartney to Avenged Sevenfold, artists of all genres are beginning to explore the possibilities of VR. But is VR the next stage in performance technology, or is it just another flash-in-the-pan gimmick?

From 360° music videos to live shows streamed directly to your headset, virtual reality has become a hot topic for the music industry.

The technology has even piqued the interest of some of music’s biggest hitters. In 2016, Paul McCartney released a VR documentary that allowed viewers to learn about the Beatles while standing a few feet away from the man himself. More recently, animated funk troupe Gorillaz released their trippy video for ‘Saturnz Barz’, which has since amassed nearly 9 million views on YouTube.

Nevertheless, some critics are still unconvinced by VR, and the question now is whether the format can overcome the challenges to become a truly revolutionary force in music.

Creating videos with a 360° viewpoint in mind

In the saturated music market, artists are trying to find new ways to stand out. VR has therefore been used to add a fresh twist to music videos, making them more replayable and shareable online.

Most notably, musicians have been stitching together 360° videos that allow headset users to look around their immediate environment during the track, enhancing their immersion and making them feel closer to their favourite artists than ever before. A memorable example is the video for ‘Crown’ by American hip-hop act Run the Jewels, in which the viewer is able to turn around to look at various eccentric characters while the performers rap in the background.

At this year’s VR World event in London, digital marketing expert Mattie Bennett spoke about the way that VR helps musicians to reclaim listeners’ attention from their eternal internet binge.

“VR is really exciting for me because it makes me feel actually this is something that will make people focus, rather than listening to an album and start scrolling through Facebook and looking at cat videos on Instagram or whatever,” he says. “They are kind of lost in the music again, so that’s exciting.”

From Bennett’s perspective, the use of movement and spatial sound (which changes depending on where you are looking) could help add a sensorial aspect to videos: “What I see VR being able to do is create these environments where audio enhances the experience. So, for example, imagine instead of looking at the Abbey Road album cover, you are actually walking down Abbey Road while listening to it, and the environment around you changes.”

Bennett’s example hints at an interactive element that several artists have already explored. Last year, VR producer Tyler Hurd created a bizarre yet brilliant music video for ‘Old Friend’ by synthpop group Future Islands. During the song, the headset wearer uses an HTC Vive to flail their limbs about in a mad animated dreamscape, trying to match the time of the cartoonish dancers around them. The video creates an irresistible need to party while playing, causing Wired to comment that it was “the best example of VR’s potential so far”.

Hurd’s VR creation achieves something normal music videos can’t, which according to many commentators is exactly what it should be doing to truly hit the mainstream. Ryan Pulliam, Co-Founder of Specular Theory, told Electronic Beats Magazine that VR needs to be the focus of the music video, not just a gimmick. “If what you’re trying to do can also be done in 2D, it probably won’t make for a great story in 360°,” he said. “Creators must approach the concept with a full 360° viewpoint in mind to enhance the story, not simply enlarge it.”

Taking people inside a sweaty rave

VR has helped make artist’s digital content stand out from the crowd. However, some believe that the technology’s real future is in live music.

Last October, Avenged Sevenfold live-streamed a VR gig in 360° from the top of the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles. The event was a ground-breaking experiment that allowed audiences across the world to don headsets and watch the heavy metal band perform on stage around them.

This proximity to the stars could be VR’s major USP, and something many consumers might be willing to pay for. The concept of being up close and personal with stars has been explored in the hugely successful Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, as well as Queen’s lauded ‘Bohemian Rhapsody Experience’, in which Freddie Mercury is brought to life as a neon-lit avatar.

Glastonbury Festival sells out every year without fail. But adding VR elements could allow fans who’ve missed out on tickets to join in from the comfort of their own bedroom

VR would also offer concert promoters whole new revenue streams to explore. For example, the UK’s Glastonbury Festival sells out every year without fail. But adding VR elements could allow fans who’ve missed out on tickets to join in from the comfort of their own bedroom. The technology could have logistical implications too; fans could use VR to check their seats before booking, for instance.

One company capitalising on the opportunity has been online broadcasting platform Boiler Room, which announced it would be opening the world’s first VR music venue in 2017. Using a specialised recording space developed alongside Inception VR, the company intends to film gigs that can be streamed directly to viewers’ devices.

Though ambitious, Boiler Room founder Blaise Belville sees the idea as fulfilling a real niche, saying in a press release that the venue will provide “immersive online experiences that bring people even closer to what it’s like being at a sweaty rave or an amazing concert half-way across the world”.

Are VR events a good enough substitute for the real thing?

The potential in VR in music has been hinted at, but it’s still far from being mainstream. Opinions are divided about just how far headsets and waggly wands will shape the industry in the future.

Many commentators have argued that live-streaming gigs through VR will never be a good enough substitute for the real thing. Independent Venue Week founder Sybil Bell told the BBC that the format loses the “romance” of going to see your favourite band perform in the flesh, and that “you can’t get that atmosphere through a screen”.

Such staunch criticism is supported by the fact that, technology-wise, VR simply isn’t there yet. On YouTube’s Engineering and Developer’s blog, software engineer Anjali Wheeler wrote that 360° music videos require huge numbers of pixels per video frame in order to match humans ‘visual acuity’, and that developers need to enhance the projection methods of their VR tech in order to make their videos that much more immersive.

What’s more, internet speeds need to improve to keep up with the insane demands of VR content. A stable, low-resolution 360° livestream in VR requires users to have bandwidth speeds of around 25Mbit/s, which can jump to up to between 80Mbit/s and 100Mbit/s if you want to play the same video in HD quality. Talk of 5G networks is promising, as they could provide faster connections that prevent the laggy, stop-start experiences that VR users currently contend with, but the implementation of these are still a long way off.

While technology needs to move upwards, prices need to decline. Cheaper solutions such as Google Cardboard have made VR more accessible to the masses, but more ambitious musical projects could require consumers to have access to high-end headsets, such as the Oculus Rift (currently retailing at a whopping £549 / $499).

Maintaining such a high cost of entry will have consumers using a mouse to scroll tediously around 360° videos forever, instead of engaging with the experience as it is intended. This could potentially be the biggest barrier to VR’s progress. If consumers aren’t buying it, then VR seems like a less exciting investment to record labels, who will be the one’s bankrolling their artists’ movement into the field.

These problems will need to be addressed before VR can be a major revenue raiser for the music industry. However, even if the format doesn’t look set to shape the scene any time soon, according to Bennett, it’s given visual music content a fresh lease of life that should inspire more amazing VR projects in the future.

“Some artists will want to stick to what works traditionally for lack of a better word,” he says. “But I think the likes of more experimental VR artists, that see music not just sound but as an extension of sound, they’re not looking at in the same way that labels are looking it.

“Artists are able to create music and environments that enhance it. I think more artists are going down that (VR) route.”

Valve’s ‘Knuckles’ controller brings individual finger control to VR

With a prototype first revealed at the company’s Steam Dev Days conference last October, Valve’s new ‘Knuckles’ controller is now being shipped to developers as a prototype, while a blog post unveils a few more of the specs.

What’s important about the new controller is that it on only utilises an ‘open hand’ design that will mean you don’t have to spend your entire time gripping the controller like a weapon, but  it also features basic tracking for individual fingers.

The device is similar to the current HTC Vive motion controller, positioning in 3D space via Steam’s Lighthouse tracking system, but looks to build to the next stage of what can be done with motion control in VR. Specifically, Valve is looking to bring a much greater presence of your virtual hand into the market.

Moreover, they’re looking to make that virtual hand feel far more natural. With the controller able to grip onto your hand – think somewhat similar to securing your Wiimotes to your wrist – you’ll be able to operate in the virtual space with an open hand. While it may seem a small thing, it brings a whole new realism to any kind of grabbing or catching motion.

In addition, the ability of the Knuckles to track the movement of individual fingers could prove a real game-changer to virtual reality experiences.  Using a number of capacitive sensors to detect the state of your hands when your finger is on a button, or particular part of a controller, the controller will, according to the dev post, “return a curl value between zero and one, where zero indicates that the finger is pointing straight out and one indicates that the finger is fully curled around the controller”.

In essence, this means that the controller will be able to sense fine gradations of movement in each of your fingers, rather than relying on a binary “open” or “closed” status. Beyond lending a more organic feel to the use of your virtual hand, this will also allow users to make use of a range of hand gestures currently unavailable with VR controllers. A screenshot from a new version of SteamVR Home displays the possibilities with a Knuckles user’s avatar throwing up devil horns.

Images courtesy of Valve

It’s worth noting that this isn’t a perfect tracking system. While farther along than, for example, the Oculus Touch controllers, which allow you to slightly open your fingers while tracking the three non-index fingers together via an analog trigger, the Knuckles aren’t exactly ‘full’ finger tracking. Ideally, controllers will reach the point of knowing where your fingers are at all times with pinpoint precision. Until then however, the Knuckles are no small step forward.

The current Knuckles controller dev kit reportedly has a battery life of three hours and requires an hour of USB Micro charging to fill up (if accurate, these numbers put it roughly in the same realm as Vive controllers in regards to battery). We’ll have to wait on confirmation of this and other details,