Cherie Hu discusses how, in order for virtual reality tech to gain legitimacy as an industry tool, it must rise above simply being thought of as a gimmicky toy and realize its true potential for use in our day-to-day lives.
Last month, I found myself at the Made in NY Media Center in Brooklyn, testing a prototype of content management platform AudioSalad’s VR player for music streaming. The product intrigued me because it seemed to challenge how the real estate for music consumption has shrunken dramatically over the past few decades, from a 12-inch vinyl record to a 375×559-pixel phone screen (or, to be more extreme, an iPod shuffle, with its meager volume of 0.48 cubic inches). Indeed, in contrast to one-off purchases of CDs with limited content, I now use nothing but my iPhone and my thumbs to navigate a practically bottomless collection of digital music on a daily basis. It’s admittedly a bit difficult for me to remember what picking up a CD feels like.
Hence, trying out AudioSalad’s VR player—which involved strapping a device to my eyes, turning around up to 270 degrees, and examining my virtual surroundings in order to choose a single song—completely threw me off-balance. This physical disorientation soon turned into fascination, however, and I became excited at the prospect of restoring physicality to what we currently take for granted as digital experiences.
Unfortunately, the conversation that the music industry tends to hold around VR only leaves me more disappointed than excited. Yes, I am beaming at the optimistic financial numbers around the technology, as is everyone else. Strategy Analytics projects revenues from global VR headset purchases to reach $895 million this year, while Digi-Capital forecasts that overall augmented/virtual reality revenue will hit $120 billion by the end of the decade.
Visitors trying the Oculus Rift in the H&M tent at the Coachella festival. (Photo courtesy of VRScout)
In response to these projections, there has been an unending rush to create immersive VR experiences for music, an industry desperately in need of a revenue boost. Both Coachella and Lollapalooza have launched their own VR content that allows users to live-stream behind-the-scenes footage or even watch sets from onstage, and Universal Music Group and iHeartMedia are launching joint VR showcases around select festivals this year. The New York TimesMagazine recently filmed a VR video that follows musician Syd da Kid and her band The Internet through the process of learning a new song. Other artists such as Björk and Run the Jewels have also created VR content for their music, and the medium is becoming an exciting new frontier for music composition.
Most of these examples point to building delightful experiences for the consumer or experimental artist. Let’s experience a live show while standing next to the headliner; let’s immerse ourselves in the experience of being an independent musician at work.
These are admirable goals, but there has been almost no discussion about how VR can transcend its role as a storytelling platform and serve as a tool for our everyday lives. This discrepancy is what I believe is preventing VR from growing more quickly in the music industry, just as the iPhone did not gain any sales momentum until it proved itself as a multifaceted yet efficient addition to our daily workflow.
The solution doesn’t stop at good content; it also needs to achieve maximum utility. In the words of Steven Sinofsky, Board Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, “being labeled a toy is necessary, but not sufficient, to become the next big thing.” It seems that the music industry currently understands VR only as a toy—a rather sophisticated and educational toy at that, but nothing more, and perhaps even something less.
When we play with toys, we wield power over otherwise static objects. As music VR currently stands, aside from the realm of music composition, there is little room to exercise this power aside from controlling our field of vision. Instead, we become passive consumers, being fed content without the opportunity for individual autonomy and expression.
One of the most exciting exceptions to this trend is eBay-owned ticket marketplace StubHub, which leveraged VR to give Final Four attendees immersive seat previews in order to make better-informed decisions about their purchases. This use of VR is groundbreaking because it gives audiences vision where they previously did not have it before—prior to this technology, no one would be able to enter a stadium in person spontaneously and check out the seats prior to buying a ticket, not even through a live-stream on a computer.
According to eBay CEO Devin Wenig, future VR projects at eBay may involve cars, antiques, fashion and other items for which being present in person plays a crucial role in decision-making. The key for successful VR, Wenig told Re/code, is to tap into “emotionally driven categories where the trust gap is hard to bridge.” Indeed, unlike in traditional storytelling where leaving out details adds suspense and captures the audience’s attention, categories like ticketing and luxury cars lose value in the absence of information, and VR can step in and provide this information where it otherwise would not be available.
A screenshot of StubHub’s immersive virtual-reality content that gives ticket buyers a full, 3D preview of available seats. (Photo courtesy of Re/code)
By revealing useful, actionable details through visual media, VR becomes one of the few instances in which looking is doing. The boundary between observation and action continues to blur, and the music industry needs to pay more attention to how it can facilitate and draw more attention to this boundary. For example, as of now, live-streaming a concert from a VR device is only looking, not doing. Viewing an empty stadium through VR, on the other hand, is both looking and doing because you actively make a purchasing decision based on the images presented to you.
Let’s go back to Wenig’s concept of the trust gap. Where else do we lack trust in the music business, and how could we restore this trust by using VR to combine observation with action?
Metadata is the first answer that comes to mind. Music executives regularly accuse streaming services like Spotify of holding back as much as $50 to $75 million worth of royalties from rights holders. Spotify, however, is certainly not the only scapegoat; inaccurate or incomplete payments stem largely from inaccurate metadata, for which the rights holders themselves may be responsible (a classic example of “garbage in, garbage out”).
Would it be possible to create a VR experience around metadata, both to educate and inspire consumers and to empower creators? Behind every music file is a complex ecosystem of singers, songwriters, session musicians, producers, publishers and other stakeholders, and it may be more effective to visualize this ecosystem in a digital, 360-degree field of vision, rather than just talk and complain about it as many industry professionals often do. Rights holders could collaborate on visualizations and implementations of metadata to ensure not only that viewers are receiving the right information, but also experiencing (yes, inevitably bringing that word back) the information in a compelling way. Viewers could experiment with hypothetically deleting metadata from songs, and visualize the drastic financial implications for the forgotten rights holders.
In general, a physical, visceral understanding of the complex structure of music metadata could elevate consumers’ appreciation of the problem and even inspire them to take action and get more involved. While not concerned with visualization, Benji Rogers’ famed .bc codec, a fair-trade music format designed specifically for VR, is an exciting venture in this direction.
We also need to be wary, however, about translating all musical activities to VR. Just as the Uber model does not translate well to other industries, so the VR model will probably die if we attempt to apply it to every possible corner of the music business. Again, the key opportunities come from gaps in trust. I already trust platforms like Facebook, Skype and Twitter for my social networking, so I will probably not use VR to hold remote meetings or conversations with friends and professionals—but I do not always trust friends who tell me that one seat in the theater is ten times better than the next. I personally trust Spotify to give me any song that I want, so I won’t necessarily go through the hassle of strapping a device to my head to stream music—but I do not always trust streaming services to provide accurate metadata.
At the end of the day, the hype around VR in the music industry is all about merging art and technology both to enhance the consumer experience and to propel the music business on the path of innovation and prosperity. For the sake of music and VR’s long-term relevance, however, I think it would be useful to move beyond the bells and whistles of immersive concert experiences, and talk more about how VR can rival devices like the iPhone in practicality, utility and sustainability for the music industry.
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