Is the world ready to start experiencing music in virtual reality?

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.”

Google’s Alphabet is Developing the Neighbourhood of the Future in Toronto

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has announced that Sidewalk Labs, its urban innovation unit, will design a high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront. The neighbourhood, called Quayside, will prioritise, “environmental sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity”.

The initial phase for the development, part of the broader Sidewalk Toronto project, has received a $50m commitment from Sidewalk, but is predicted to cost at least a billion dollars by the time it’s fully completion.

As part of the broader project, Quayside seems to be the first attempt at creating what Sidewalk refers to as a “new kind of mixed-use, complete community”, an attempt the company presumably hopes to eventually expand across the waterfront and ultimately into other cities.

“This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said on Tuesday.

Early concept images for the neighbourhood include self-driving cars and other infrastructure technologies. Images courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

Located in the primarily publicly-owned 800-acre area called Port Lands, Quayside looks to be the test bed for potential future community design. With the planning process for the development starting with a community town hall on the 1st of November, we are still some ways off from knowing just what the neighbourhood will look like, but early illustrations include bikeshares, apartment housing, bus lines and parks.

More importantly, however, is Doctoroff’s previous discussions of what he believes future city design will look like. Technology focused, there’s been mention of sensors that track energy usage, machine learning and using high-speed internet to improve urban environments.

Specifically, at a summit hosted by The Information last year, he mentioned “thinking about [a city] from the internet up”. As would be expected from a company under the same parent as Google, Sidewalk seems to be concentrated on development that prioritises innovation and building communities with an eye to how technology can help found neighbourhoods.

“I like to describe it that we’re in the very early stages of what I call the fourth revolution of urban technology,” Doctoroff previously told Business Insider.

“The first three were the steam engine, which brought through trains and factories that industrialized cities. The second was the electric grid, which made cities 24 hours, made them more vertical, made them easier to get around in with subways and streetcars.

“The third was the automobile, which forced us to really re-think the use of public space in order to protect people from the danger of the automobile. We’re now in the fourth one. We’ve had an urban technology revolution … We’re seeing a real change in the physical nature of our cities.”

DJI’s First Drone Arena in Tokyo to Open This Saturday

Consumer drone giant DJI will open its first Japanese drone arena in the city of Tokyo this Saturday, providing a space for both hardened professionals and curious newcomers to hone their flying skills.

The arena, which covers an area of 535 square metres, will not only include a large flying area complete with obstacles, but also offer a store where visitors can purchase the latest DJI drones and a technical support area where drone owners can get help with quadcopter issues.

The hope is that the arena will allow those who are curious about the technology but currently lack the space to try it out to get involved.

“As interest around our aerial technology continues to grow, the DJI Arena concept is a new way for us to engage not just hobbyists but also those considering this technology for their work or just for the thrill of flying,” said Moon Tae-Hyun, DJI’s director of brand management and operations.

“Having the opportunity to get behind the remote controller and trying out the technology first hand can enrich the customer experience. When people understand how it works or how easy it is to fly, they will discover what this technology can do for them and see a whole new world of possibilities.”

Images courtesy of DJI

In addition to its general sessions, which will allow members of the public to drop by and try their hand at flying drones, the arena will also offer private hire, including corporate events. For some companies, then, drone flying could become the new golf.

There will also be regular events, allowing pros to compete against one another, and drone training, in the form of DJI’s New Pilot Experience Program, for newcomers.

The arena has been launched in partnership with Japan Circuit, a developer of connected technologies, including drones.

“We are extremely excited to partner with DJI to launch the first DJI Arena in Japan,” said Tetsuhiro Sakai, CEO of Japan Circuit.

“Whether you are a skilled drone pilot or someone looking for their first drone, we welcome everyone to come and learn, experience it for themselves, and have fun. The new DJI Arena will not only serve as a gathering place for drone enthusiasts but also help us reach new customers and anyone interested in learning about this incredible technology.”

The arena is the second of its kind to be launched by DJI, with the first located in Yongin, South Korea, and detailed in the video above. .

Having opened in 2016, the area has attracted visitors from around the world, demonstrating serious demand for this type of entertainment space.

If the Tokyo launch goes well, it’s likely DJI will look at rolling out its arena concept to other cities, perhaps even bringing the model to the US and Europe.

For now, however, those who are interested can book time at the Tokyo arena here.