My first foray into virtual reality, or VR, began nearly 27 years ago when my family took a summer vacation road trip from Virginia to Toronto. During our stay, the CN Tower just so happened to be hosting a video game exhibit, and the main attraction was a VR shooter—Dactyl Nightmare—in which two people donned clunky headsets and squared off against each other while fending off vicious pterodactyls. The gaming rig, which rendered VR in full 90s polygonal glory, made a significant impression upon me in terms of introducing an exciting technology platform, but at the cost $100,000, I wondered if I’d ever see VR reach my living room.
Interestingly enough, about the same time in 1991, Nirvana exploded onto the music scene with its hit album, Nevermind. Needless to say, I was a big fan and my wardrobe soon primarily consisted of flannel and jeans. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the album’s release. 2016 also marked my reintroduction to VR as an emerging technology, when I took an introductory digital communications class for my Communications@Syracuse master’s program. My final report for the class centered on Google Cardboard and looked ahead to where the technology was going (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive had already been released and Playstation VR was just on the horizon at the time).
I bring up these past remembrances and events now, as they collided to form the basis of my field test for my Emerging Media Platforms class. In addition to VR, in the course of our study, we’ve examined several new technologies that are transforming the digital communications and media landscape, including chatbots, sensors, 3D reality capture, 360-degree video, and augmented reality. For my final field test, I initially wanted to test the viability of using a Playstation VR—or PSVR—and a drawing application included in a new game, Harmonix Music VR, to mimic the functionality of Google’s Tilt Brush in creating explorable, VR art. Harmonix Music VR is a significantly cheaper version of Google’s Tilt Brush when considering HTC Vive headset and computer startup costs that can total up to $2,300. I already own a Playstation 4, so the investment into PSVR as a platform wasn’t terribly offsetting at a cost of $450. An additional feature of Harmonix Music VR caught my eye, though—it allows you to load sidecar MP3 files to accompany the art creation process. My thoughts soon turned to the music capabilities of the game, and it wasn’t long before I was contemplating the various albums that I would bring to life, including Nirvana’s Nevermind. Some word mapping soon had me focusing on album art. Why album art? Well, as a vinyl enthusiast, I’ve often heard others lament that album art has died with the advent of digital, streaming music; it’s just not as complete of an experience as the physical album art that used to promote a more cohesive, immersive experience while listening. The same axiom doesn’t hold true for albums that it does for books—you CAN judge an album by its cover. In my mind, VR was the natural leap to reinvigorate the musical album experience and return it to the prominence it once had as visual medium.
I formed a hypothesis that VR environments can be adapted for album art, and that future albums may be released entirely as VR experiences, with either curated videos, photos or art installations that augment a band’s vision, or concept, for an album. As my concentration is Public Relations, VR album art is an interesting promotional piece that bands can use to garner listener interest and engagement amongst a target demographic. Creating an example interface and surveying viewers could yield some initial data to support VR as a viable, and welcomed album art experience. Fittingly, for the field test, I used Harmonix Music VR to recreate album artwork for Nirvana’s Nevermind.
- Playstation 4 – A powerful, popular gaming platform that runs the PSVR headset and Harmonix Music VR software/game. Cost $299.
Use to media: provides a platform from which to run VR peripherals. Install base of more than 50 million users.
- PSVR – Released in October 2016, this VR headset is a cheaper alternative to more expensive headsets, yet it has quality features such as OLED display, 1920×1080 resolution, and 3D audio processing. Cost: $399.
Use to media: provides a platform from which to view, interface with and create VR content. Install base of more than 1 million users.
- Harmonix Music VR – A PS4 game made for PSVR that runs on Playstation 4. Cost: $15.
Use to media: features an “easel mode” similar to Tilt Brush, which allows users to create VR drawings accompanied by music from side-loaded MP3 files.
Admittedly, I’m an amateur artist. I haven’t painted since high school. Yet, I didn’t let this deter me from trying my artistic hand and bringing Nirvana’ album to life. I booted up Harmonix Music VR for the first time and was initially impressed with the 3D space of the easel application. Using the PS4’s “Move” controllers, I was able to bring up a limited menu of shapes and animations. I tested which shapes were more suited to the fine detail of drawing a 3D scene and began experimenting with various brushes. The controllers tracked my movements closely, and soon, I was able to create 3D objects such as a chair that really looked as if you could sit in it.
Next, I loaded an MP3 version of Nirvana’s Nevermind on a flash drive and created a playlist within Harmonix Music VR to work alongside of. I turned my attention to recreating Nevermind’s album cover, a photograph of a baby floating through a pool, led on by a dollar bill on a fishing line. I began by creating a rudimentary body using a spherical shape and connecting multiple spheres together to formulate mass. I used a smaller brush to form fingers on the hands. I used a flat brush to create a box, or pool, around the floating figure and then drew the fishing line and dollar bill in.
I experimented with this process multiple times and made multiple versions of the artwork. Each time, I felt my familiarity and ability to manipulate the tools became increasingly more intuitive and natural.
Overall, I was frustrated with the lack of detail that Harmonix Music VR allows. Furthermore, the easel application limits the total number of rendered shapes to under 300, which seriously limits the user’s ability to create a detailed scene. Undeterred, I made version after version until I was at least satisfied that my creation conveyed the concept I was trying to get across. I made a recording of a livestream to Youtube via my PS4’s broadcasting application, and created the following video describing my experience:
I formulated a simple survey using surveymonkey.com to collect viewer responses of the field test as well as their opinions of VR as a platform for generating album art. As of writing this, 15 people have taken the survey and provided some key insights into my project and hypothesis.
- Respondents’ ages range from 18-54, with 60% comprising the 24-34 age demographic (which makes sense as I made the survey initially available to my cohort)
- 60% of respondents are male.
- 100% of respondents think media experiences (e.g. album art, music videos, photography) compliment the musical listening experience.
- 80% of respondents acquire/listen to their music via streaming applications.
- 33% of respondents have not tried a VR headset, while 40% own a Google Cardboard device.
- 66% of respondents do not own a VR headset, but intend to in the future.
- 86% of respondents are interested in experiencing their favorite artist’s music as a VR experience. The remaining 14% said, “Maybe.”
- 93% of respondents think VR experiences can/will compliment musical albums in the future. The remaining 7% said, “It’s hard to tell.”
- Some reactions to the demo:
- “Awesome concept.”
- “Quality could be better.”
- “I can see how you could create entire neighborhoods and worlds, even group entertainment associated with bands and genres and interconnect them.”
- “Great idea.”
- “Hopefully this idea will spark something, because that would be an incredible experience.”
- If I’m honest, I felt the visuals fell short. I think if you are going to do VR album art the visuals should be HD and the art design should be just as pristine as it is in Tiltbrush. I think that true artists would want to have a better product. I do think the idea is terrific.”
While VR does indeed seem to be a medium suited for album art, my artistic abilities coupled to Harmonix Music VR did not deliver the full quality that many I surveyed—including myself—would expect from a professional album art experience. The game features limited, rudimentary shapes that lack the ability to develop the fine detail that is seen in applications such as Google’s Tilt Brush. Cheaper cost comes at the price of limited quality. I feel that with continued practice and iterations, I could improve the quality of my Nevermind creation. It would take some significant improvement, though. Additionally, I would be interested to see what a more accomplished artist could create using the game’s interface. As of now, though, the this particular technology application just isn’t there yet—the game lacks the ability to export creations, and it has no community sharing feature, which could truly make for an interesting way to explore other users’ interpretations of albums.
Based on the responses of those I surveyed, I am confident that we’ll see VR utilized as a medium of releasing an album in the future. A target demographic of males, age 24-34, who listen to music via streaming services could be an initial demographic to target. Applications such as Spotify and iTunes could use VR side-car album art as a way of increasing listener engagement, which could spell additional display ad opportunities for adverstisers. We’re already seeing music artists such as Foals using 360-degree video for music videos. And true to form, just this week, Gorillaz released a 360-degree animated video for their latest album, Humanz. Ultimately, based on my findings and research, my field test validates my hypothesis that completely immersive VR worlds could be the next iteration of album art, or experiential listening.