A Virtual Reality Pop Single By


Designed For Oculus Rift

What This Is About

What VR is, why we like it, and what we think we're doing with it - an essay for beginners

Perhaps it is because this one has been so relentlessly disappointing, but I have been obsessed with Virtual Reality for a very long time.

I have a dim memory of having a go on the original Dactyl Nightmare at the Trocadero when I was somewhere around Just William age - a short, confusing memory that didn’t have much to do with the dawning sensual aeon I’d been promised on Blue Peter. It wasn't what I'd been after.

In provoking this response, VR, joined the pantheon of promised technologies that we, petulant generation Xers and whiny millennials, blamed the sell-out sixties for not giving us. Jetpacks! Hoverboards! Space Colonisation! Life Extension! For fuck’s sake! Millions now living continue to die - it’s bullshit.

But technology is both slower and faster than we imagine. Slower because sometimes it goes off into a corner and waits while other technologies exponentially progress; and faster because when those other technologies are finally at the right point it is suddenly possible to do things we thought we were only dreaming about.

Between my two minute stumble around the pixels I’d tried to stare at a few seconds before in the early nineties and today: telephone designers made high resolution screens and accelerometers that could tell a computer which way their devices were aligned; Special FX departments found ways to put dots on things and have a camera track them so that a computer knew where they were located in space; Graphics card manufacturers got into an arms race with Video game developers that resulted in insanely powerful hardware that can render 3D simulations with incredible precision, incredibly fast; Software companies built game engines that they gave away for free or low cost to Indie game developers; The Open Source community built 3D modelling tools that rivalled professional alterntives... and suddenly, Virtual Reality was not only possible, it was almost cheap. Simultaneously, putting virtual environments together was possible - not just possible for Million dollar companies and superhyped startups, but possible for me, today, in my house.

Seriously, man, I’ve got Virtual Reality in my house, right now. I went to Saturn in it. Julia went to Mars. I met Totoro and hung out in the boiler room from Spirited Away! I sat on a nice raft and went down a river in Middle Earth then played Galaga in the 80s arcade of my cousin's dreams. Two years ago it was as likely as Jetpacks. These are the days of miracle and wonder.

Thing is though, what are we going to do with it?

So much of what makes it possible comes from Gaming - and the temptation is to see it as gaming peripheral - but I think treating it as such would be hopelessly unimaginative.

If you don’t play games, you probably think they have a problem with violence. That’s sort of true, but it’s largely not a product of any deranged bloodlust - but a something more fundamental - a player has to have something to do. Otherwise you can’t fill the hours that the medium requires. Skyrim isn’t a game about embedding a Mace in people’s faces - it’s a game about bumming around a gigantic arctic fantasy world picking flowers and taking in magnificent vistas while learning the nature and lore of an artificial universe and how the person you embody relates to it (Actually the way I play it it's basically an Antique's Dealership Simulator...). But, to deliver that, players need mechanics and in a world of drama - drama residing in conflict - the quickest way to do that is to have a lot of things interrupt you who need a mace in the face.

I’m not even calling that lazy, it’s really difficult to think of another solution. The kind of AI that would allow a game to let you meaningfully simulate machiavellian conversational manipulation to the same degree of plausible verisimilitude as face-macing is still beyond us. Violence is our first and simplest solution and it would be churlish to expect video games to do in forty years what the human race has yet to manage in millennia.

Still though, it’s an issue. I loved Bioshock Infinite - and being something of cultural evangelist, when I love something I can’t bear being unable to share it with people. I want you to experience what I experienced playing that game - but you can’t, for the most part, because there’s so much face mangling between the visionary world building and startlingly emotional moments of humble, pitch perfect revelation. You wouldn’t get past it.

Even if that was cool, there’s a problem with the controls. First person games have settled on a control system that involves rotating your head and the y-axis of your body with one input while transforming your position with another. A few months of it and it’s second nature - but for people who don’t have the inclination to commit to learning how it works in their bones it is counter intuitive and off-putting.

VR, so far as I can see, will solve both these problems. No one needs to be taught how to look around using their head. I can put my Oculus Rift dev kit on anyone and even if they feel a bit seasick and struggle to blindly feel out the arrow keys on the keyboard - they know how to perform the basic VR mechanic - looking - without being told. It’s the same mechanic as tourism, after all.

With the rift, my mum, who has never played anything more core than Bejewelled Blitz can navigate a first person game environment easily after a few seconds. My dad can too - but he's logged a couple of hundred hours in Skyrim so it's less of a thing.

If you search youtube you can find countless videos of people finding the oldest relative they have access to and putting Oculus Rifts on them. Once you've got past the humour inherent in watching a centenarian wonder if they're in heaven, the takeaway is how easily they can participate in the experience. There's no learning curve.

What’s more, the art you can make with VR is not restricted to violence and occasional one-off violence free gimmicks.

If you spend a weekend in Venice, you don’t find it boring if you can’t fire a railgun at all the umbrella salesmen - when you’re there, it’s enough to look.

And that means that VR has potential to be something born of, but wholly other than gaming. Imagine a Punchdrunk show not limited to three loops, but cycling endlessly in VR space - your avatar free to wander between scenes indifferent to your presence. Imagine Hamlet in a fully realised castle where you can choose to peak behind the scenes, wait in Gertrude’s closet or follow the Prince as he stalks the halls. Imagine an encyclopaedia where entries place you in Carthage or Nuremberg, face to face with Newton, in a town square to watch Luther nail his doctrine to the door...

You don’t have to imagine a to scale model of the solar system that you can fly about in to learn interesting facts about the planets - that exists now. So does a guided tour of known space's largest bodies that puts you right next to them. You don’t have to imagine a presentation on the history of life and matter that has the first amphibious life-form plucked from the desk in front of you by a vengeful proto-octopus - I’ve done that too. And I swear, I didn’t have the slightest urge to hit the Octopus with anything.

It’s in its infancy - that is definitely the case. Everything is buggy and a bit broken and attached to things with wires. You get a weird effect like looking through a screen-door because you can see the spaces between the pixels. Often the picture judders disconcertingly and this seems to be a hard problem to solve. There is an issue with turning your virtual body all the way around - that is currently solved by either not requiring you to do so, placing you always in vehicles, or mapping the y-rotation to the mouse - none of these will do forever, though all are good sticking plasters for the moment.

But still. It’s VR, and it sort of works - and that’s amazing.

So I’ve been thinking, and learning a lot about game engines and code and 3d modelling, and I think that one of the new things possible in this medium is a way to make ‘Virtual Reality Pop Singles’ as a new format for distributing music.

In short, you don’t just get the record, you get somewhere to go and listen to the record as well. Bullish as I am on new technology, I can’t deny that the explosive rise in the availability of music has had some detrimental effects. There was something about an album that could only be listened to while near a record player that made the experience better. You had to sit down and listen to the bloody thing - not while doing Angry Birds - you just had to stay in an environment and pay attention. I’m not old enough to have been into an actual listening booth in HMV - but I like that idea - that you would be put in a box and that the box had nothing in it but Starman and you had to listen to it and that was enough.

VR is all about that. It has the potential to be immersive enough that you don’t need to be doing anything else at the same time. A song is a kind of short narrative - and, forgive me I have two humanities degrees, I think it is possible to enhance the poignancy and artistic vortex that it represents by placing it within an immersive context that adds meaning and focus to the cultural artefact.

For example, there’s a bit in Far Cry 3 (a game about Wildlife spotting and hallucinogenic madness that also happens to rely on shooting lots of dudes with a sniper rifle) where you have to burn down a hemp crop with a flamethrower while listening to Skrillex and Damian Marley’s Make It Bun Dem record. It makes that song feel amazing. Better than it would have ever felt with the best MTV video in the world - the dizzying sense of participatory agency that you only get from immersive tech meshes beautifully with the music: and that is just from controlling a First Person camera on a TV screen. I think the potential for similar, short, standalone experiences in VR is enormous.

So, obviously, we are releasing a Virtual Reality Pop Single.

It is called ‘The Generation That Nobody Remembered’ and works with the Oculus Rift DK2.

It has an A-Side and a B-Side, each with separate associated VR experiences.

It’s free to download and you can get it here.

If you like it, you might want to consider buying the audio file from Corporate Records for 99p. If you really like it you might want to consider paying a bit more than that -we could really do with it.

If you don’t have an Oculus Rift (and let’s face it, you probably don’t) then you can get a pretty good sense of what it will be like by playing the screen based version - this is the same experience but controlled like a normal videogame and shown in 2d on your monitor. It is not the same at all. It’s hard to convey the sense of scale and personal involvement that comes when you do it in VR - but it’s wholly unlike the videogame version. However, it’s still pretty cool and gives you a basis from which to imagine what it will be like when you get to try it in the not-to-distant future.

If you don’t want to have any part of this lame Tron-ass bullshit, the song is still available for 99p here.

It’s a prototype, it’s a bit of a mess, and I’ve got a long way to go before I’ll feel like I’m not just hacking this shit together out of bits and pieces that are lying around my brain. What’s more, it’s a platform that hardly anyone has access to and that’s a very silly way to release a record. But still - I’m obsessed with it and it had to be done now. I can’t imagine how bored we’d all have been if the first virtual reality pop single had been a 180 degree panoramic 3D video of Harry Styles moving his hair about.

So there you are, that’s what we’ve been up to.

The single, btw, is from our next studio album which is probably called ‘Elevator Music’ and which is going to be about space and stuff. You should hear some of th music Julia's been writing - it's pretty great.

At some point I'm going to make a whole VR album. This is my proof of concept.

Simon Indelicate, November 2014