Virtual Reality, Music and Immersion

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Once upon a time music would have only been accessible in taverns, theatres, and social gatherings and would have arguably been valued more highly than it is today. Since then the development of mass media in 20th century has gradually seen music become much more widely available and perhaps lost some of its aura of automatic aesthetic value. Music is now consumed and distributed like any other commodity, and the options for modes of listening have increased tenfold.

North and Hargreaves, in their Uses of Music in Everyday Life (2004) speculate that ‘We might expect that the greater availability of music in the modern day might have led to music as a commodity being in some way ‘cheapened'” such that people’s reasons for listening to it are ‘passive and detached”. In this respect we might consider VR as a means of reaffirming the spectacle of music listening. Why? Because VR is in a privileged position in that it can put you in a music experience: it seals you in with no immediate distractions from ‘the outside world’ and allows you to feel closer to performers whilst being immersed in the music through varying degrees of emotion enhancing interactions.

So what exactly does this buzzword ‘immersion’ — a term that has become practically synonymous with virtual realty—actually mean? Stemming from the Late Latin immersionem and immergere, the word ‘immersion’ means, to dip into, sink, or submerge and carries metaphorical connotations pertaining to having a deep absorption in something. All of us will have no doubt had an immersive experience at some point during our lives, whether it was being engrossed in a compelling film or book, being captivated by following the peaks and chills in a favorite piece of music, or ‘losing hours’ whilst being totally absorbed by a video game.

Typically, during an immersive experience, ones’ awareness or sense of duration is altered as we are removed from the normal flow of time, perhaps because we simply lose track of the cues that we usually use to measure duration as our attention becomes captivated by the experience before us. Oliver Grau, in his Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion (2003), eloquently describes immersion as “a mentally absorbing process, a change, a passage from one mental state to another” in which there is a “diminishing critical distance to what is shown and increasing emotional involvement in what is happening”.

U2’s Song for Someone – a Vrse VR experience created by Chris Milk

The appeal of getting closer to your favorite artists is being explored by a number of developers and is arguably the most abundant type of virtual reality music experience out there at the moment. Examples include U2’s “Song for Someone” and Run the Jewels’ “Crown”.  Both are 360 virtual reality music videos that give the illusion of being in a space with the performing musicians, the appeal of which, stems from the desire to feel close, both literally and metaphorically, to one’s favorite artists. These kind of videos forecast what is probably the major commercial application for music VR: being able to attend virtual concerts, live performances, and gain access to recording studios. The next major challenge for developers will be to come up with ways to incorporate the important social element of the live gig or concert into the VR experience.

Dylan Fitterer’s Audioshield

In addition to the VR music videos that focus primarily on proximity and telepresence are those that experiment with other aspects of VR in order to enhance the music listening experience. VR, with its ability to encourage movement through various motion tracking and feedback techniques is in a unique position to be able to create ‘embodied’ user experiences. Studies have shown that music is enjoyed more when accompanied with a physical action: clapping, dancing, and singing can all enhance our enjoyment of music by arousing complimentary emotions.

Dylan Fitterer’s Audio shield is just one such example. Using the HTC Vive’s hand controllers you wield virtual shields to defend yourself from orbs that come at you in sync with your favorite tunes, encouraging you feel the beat of the music. Tyler Hurd’s Old Friend VR music video is perhaps the best current example of physicality being used to enhance and bring a piece of music to life.  Set in a colorful, weird and wonderful world inhabited by dancing, smiling characters that you can reach out and tickle, you’re encouraged to dance, and using the Vive’s motion tracking sensors, your avatar mirrors your movements. Dancing, along with empathetic emotional transference from the contagiously overzealous characters around you, results in ‘Old Friend’ being a truly joyous virtual reality music experience.

Tyler Herd’s Old Friend

In contrast to these highly embodied VR music pieces are those that favor a less hands-on attitude. Holospark’s Impossible Travel Agency, for instance, takes a completely stripped down approach to user interactions, keeping them minimal to avoid the experience feeling to ‘gamey’ and instead focusing on the contemplative emotional aspects of the music listening experience. The developers spent some time deliberating about whether to include certain interactive features such as being able to control a flock of birds with your handset, but ultimately decided that using the handset to run your ringers through the phosphorescent flowers that carpet the ground was enough. This subtle interaction, along with the hypnotic color pallet and vast, awe inspiring landscapes work to evoke contemplation and a heightening of emotions to create memorable virtual music experiences.

Holospark’s Impossible Travel Agency

The contrast in levels of interaction in the examples mentioned highlights another challenge for VR music developers- how much interaction is too much interaction? How can these features be utilized in order to enhance the music, its message, and its emotional content without becoming an entertaining playground which in fact pushes the music itself into the background?

This small set of examples gives just some initial indication of what’s possible in the world of VR music. Whilst attending virtual performances will undoubtedly remain a popular application, what’s perhaps most exciting will be seeing how developers and artists work together to tease out VR’s unique features in order to enhance and even change the way we experience music.

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