'You can't deny the experience of it': how augmented and virtual reality is transforming the listening experience

Immersing oneself in a world of music is no longer simply a figure of speech, as Erica Basnicki finds out...
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Beatie Wolfe's latest album was recorded in an anechoic chamber (photo by Veanne Cao)    

Beatie Wolfe's latest album was recorded in an anechoic chamber (photo by Veanne Cao)    

To a certain extent, we are already using music to control our reality. Music wakes us up in the morning, makes our commute more bearable, helps us focus at work, relaxes us after a long day and even puts us to sleep again. We let off steam at a club, a gig, or a weekend-long festival. Music is a perpetual sonic wallpaper, always adorning some activity or other.

Life is definitely more pleasant when set to music, and most of us have a small, portable device of some sort to make it extremely convenient to provide such a never-ending soundtrack. But what kind of effect does this convenience have upon the audio quality of our listening experience?

The backlash began several years back. Vinyl’s resurgence isn’t simply about sound quality (itself a very subjective – and contentious – debate). There is a focus when listening to a record. It lacks convenience and demands, at least initially, attention.
In a bizarre twist, digital AR and VR technology might just be able to one-up vinyl’s ability to put music centre stage in our minds again. The technology is still in its infancy, not quite established enough to describe itself as “here to stay”, but certainly more than a mere fad. It has grabbed a definite hold on many artists, and there is no shortage of startups willing to work with them. Get ready to listen like never before...

Virtually there

Several artists have already combined music and VR in imaginative ways. Last year, Bjork released four singles in VR, combining them with a world exhibition tour. More recently, producer and DJ TOKiMONSTA partnered with social VR music platform TheWaveVR to release a special edition of her album Lune Rouge, featuring a VR rave. An album that exists entirely in VR? To our knowledge, it doesn’t exist. Yet.

Enter American electronic outfit I-Exist, comprising lead singer, keyboardist, guitarist, and cellist Brian Lenington and percussionist Cameron Bailey. The pair are hard at work creating Consciousness, the world’s very first VR album. To date, it’s a Kickstarter success story, having raised their goal of $20,000 to see the project through until completion, scheduled for the end of this year.

Originally a four-piece, I-Exist rose to acclaim after their song Fire Fly was featured on the Saw 3D soundtrack. In 2011, the group released the epic four-volume concept album, Humanity. Never short of ambition, I-Exist have always keen to explore technology, explains Lenington.

“We’re always trying to one-up ourselves and adding things to our live shows; a dramatic light show, video,” he explains. “We hit the road and half of our band quit so we turned them into holograms and had a holographic tour. As crazy as it sounds, it’s just a natural progression. We came back from our tour and thought ‘What other crazy thing can we do?’ And here we are.”

It’s not quite that simple; the idea for Consciousness has been three years in the making. Rather than handing coding duties over to developers, Lenington and Bailey have been teaching themselves C#, the scripting language used by the 2D/3D cross-platform game engine Unity, in addition to working on the musical material for the album. The first single, “Find Dreams”, has already been released in traditional, linear, formats. How it will sound to the listener when the VR experience is available, will depend entirely on where the listener wants to go with it.

“Each song has two parallel states of consciousness: consciousness and subconsciousness,” Lenington continues. “At any point you can switch over and wormhole to the other version of song. One is high-energy, the other is low-energy, the user can switch at any point.”

“‘Find Dreams’ is the first song that we’ve released that we wrote, produced, mixed and mastered,” adds Bailey. “Both that and the VR thing are just two roads that we’re driving down, slowly getting to where we want to be. It feels really good to release that first song.”

I-Exist are sold on the idea of VR as a lasting platform; Lenington, a self-confessed early-adopter of new technology, says: “I just knew this was the next thing...You can’t deny the experience of virtual reality. It’s undeniably amazing. You can be skeptical if you want but that probably means you haven’t tried it.”

Although a richer musical experience was the impetus for creating Consciousness and for I-Exist to explore VR, Lenington’s conviction is that VR extends beyond simply improving the way we listen to music.

“People talk about social media, and being on their phone, and plugged into the Internet; it’s much bigger than music,” he elaborates. “Other than going to the movies, there is no other time in your life ever when you get to actually unplug. You’re always connected; checking texts, checking notifications. That’s the sweet thing about VR: Off. I’m going to go to some crazy world now, bye. I think that’s powerful.”

Fantastical augmented reality

In many ways, AR has seen a much wider acceptance than its virtual counterpart. Just a few years ago the world was obsessed with searching for Pokémon “outdoors”. Last year, the world went mad for Beatie Wolfe’s Raw Space; the world’s first live 360˚ AR stream, which combined live, 360˚ stereoscopic video and real-time AR visuals. An “anti-stream”, as she describes it, that celebrates the world of the album in its entirety; artwork, lyrics, story, arc etc.

“The way I see it, is that it’s not about being negative about the digitisation of music; there have been so many benefits,” Wolfe tells PSNEurope.

Rather than see digital technology as the enemy, Wolfe has drawn inspiration from its capabilities, stretching our concept of what digital music – and indeed an album in the digital age – can be.

“Part of that idea of moving forward is that there’ll be a lot of things that we try that won’t work, and we’ll ultimately return to things of meaning. I really believe that. I don’t think albums will ever go out of fashion. That experience of sitting down and really immersing yourself in an album and having a deeper experience with it, that’s core to our humanity in a way that music is also core to our humanity.”

Launched in May 2017, the live AR experience was a week-long, 24-hour stream that combined live performance and music from the album itself. It was the result of a collaboration between Wolfe and the renowned Nokia Bell Labs, home to the rejuvenated Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) programme. Wolfe was initially inspired by the labs’ anechoic chamber – the ultimate space in which to listen – deciding it was the perfect location for Raw Space to be broadcast to the world.

It is certainly an engrossing experience that begins with Wolfe ceremoniously placing the needle of a turntable onto a record. The music starts and fantastical lyrics and animated art – provided by interactive creative firm Design I/O – begin to float around the room. The stream is no longer ‘live’, but AR videos of the music will continue to live on YouTube.

“Right now, we’re replacing ceremony with immediacy but I think we will return to ceremony,” says Wolfe. “I think as artists it’s about being as creative and thoughtful as possible and really imbuing an album release with as much magic as possible to trigger people out of having music on 24/7 in the background, and to think about it like ‘Oh wow! This new album experience really asks me to go deeper with it.’ I think when we’re asked to commit to things we get so much more out of them.”

At last April’s VR World Congress in Bristol, producers emphasised the need for more VR and AR content to get the general public excited about the technology. But Wolfe doesn’t necessarily think that it’s a platform to be explored just for the sake of it: “It’s not that I think that every artist should make these extravagant experiences... ultimately ‘why’ is the most important word; if you don’t know why you’re doing something, why you’re using live AR to bring to life the album’s artwork and lyrics, it’s not going to connect. You have to know why and I’ve always been very clear about that.”

For now, Wolfe is still inspired to push the ideas behind Raw Space as far as they will go. In September of this year, the album will come to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the London Design Festival. There, an individual can walk into a replica of Nokia Bell Labs’ anechoic chamber and watch the album come to life. An excellent opportunity to experience a new way to listen, but just don’t get too hung up on the technology.

“The bottom line is that great art never goes out of fashion,” Wolfe concludes. “Great art never dates. It’s timeless. The thing we don’t have is time to decide what aspects of what we’re doing right now will remain relevant, and which are the ones that will die. Time is the only decider. Right now we’re in the eye of the storm. Great art, whether it’s poetry, music, literature, paintings, never goes out of fashion, it’s always relevant and it’s always meaningful.” 

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