Stills from top VR music videosJESSE DAMIANI
Got a new holiday VR headset? Immerse yourself in these VR music videos.
The past two years have been tough on the VR industry -- which, in its way, is a large part of the reason the industry is maturing. In absence of flashy investments and hype cash-ins, the community is beginning to focus on what the actual value proposition of virtual reality is on a broad scale. On the interactive side, breakouts like Beat Saber, Where Thoughts Go, and Wolves in the Walls all proved -- in their way -- that an emphasis on intimacy and human-oriented design are new guideposts for the medium. With more visible distribution channels, including YouTube, cinematic VR fully stepped into its own this year.
One glance at the 360 VR Video Professionals group shows that, as we push into 2019, we're seeing far fewer broad conversations and far more in-depth technical conversations around producing the smartest, clearest, highest quality work. While we still might not see the type of meteoric mainstream adoption numbers heralded in 2015/16, behind the scenes, the creators are hard at work refining the craft so that when big developments drive consumer interest (see: Oculus Quest), there will be plenty of top-rate video content available alongside the games and apps.
In particular, the form of the VR music video continues to grow and evolve. Some show a deeper refinement of the cinematic music video ("Life Support," "Unraveled"), others offer interactive capabilities that cast them as an altogether new form of "music video" (Lambchild Superstar, Chorus) and others still use VR as a tool to create 2D mixed reality videos ("Virtual Insanity," "Starlight"). Meanwhile, Google has led the charge around the VR180 format, in which creators constrain the immersive format by half. This has welcomed 2D creators to the medium via lower barriers to entry (180 filmmaking and 2D filmmaking exhibit fewer differences) with the added benefit of letting them cut file sizes in half, opening up the possibility of producing stereoscopic videos without some of the hurdles involved with 360.
With that said, let's take a look at the top VR music videos of 2018.
Taryn Southern - Life Support
This year, Taryn Southern did something monumental: she produced an album using Amper, an AI music composition tool. Herself an early adopter of VR, she doubled down on the future-forward aspect of her work by producing VR music videos -- including "Life Support." With animation from XR artist Danny Bittman, "Life Support" is a visceral examination of how our obsession with (and addiction to) technology is changing us; by plugging deeper into our technology, we become increasingly disconnected from ourselves.
Justice - Chorus
At Sundance 2017, Chocolate, created by Tyler Hurd and produced by Adam Roger (with Viacom NEXT), was a standout favorite. For Sundance 2018, the pair joined forces with Within -- and the signatures of both parties are visible in Chorus, a social music experience set to the eponymous Justice song. Like Life of Us, Chorus is a "multiplayer" experience; Chorus involves groups of up to 6 people entering the experience simultaneously -- each as a different fantastical female warrior.
Like Chocolate -- and Old Friend and BUTTS before it -- Hurd's trademark style is impossible to miss in Chorus: the vibrant colors, childlike gestures, and all-around goofballery (even in the darkest characters). Hurd even developed a proprietary puppetry system in Unity so that all of the non-avatar characters in the experience showcase his own real-life dance moves. The result is a deeply human experience in the digital environment -- one in which friends and strangers can band together in a zany, shared musical reality.
SAFIA - Starlight
Sutu is one of the best living XR artists -- producing his own VR and AR work alongside his work with other artists in EyeJack, the AR platform he founded. Meanwhile, Az Balabanian has emerged as one of the industry's preeminent photogrammetry artists. The combination creates a video that juxtaposes opposites -- the uncanny reality of Balabanian's 3D scans offset by Sutu's vibrant, sci-fi augmentations (all hand-drawn in Tilt Brush) -- as we progress from micro to macro. In the video, we follow a tendril from a back patio origin to an overview of the city, where a seeming alien presence hovers overhead. We push into the presence and explode into an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic reality -- one that brings new relevance to the "starlight" symbol. On a broader level, "Starlight" showcases how immersive technologies (VR art creation tools, photogrammetry) can be used to produce unique 2D video content via mixed reality (MR).
Poppy - VR180 Experience Series
This year, metamodern wunderkind Poppy put out a series of VR180 experiences with Google -- each channeling a different bite-sized take on the synthetic reality VR facilitates. While none is explicitly a video for an individual song, each invokes a score that provides deeper immersion into the world and persona Moriah Rose Pereira has constructed, as in: "My Striped Pants," "So Close to You," Which one is it?," and "Why is this happening?"
Chase Holfelder - Virtual Insanity (Jamiroquai Cover)
Mixed Reality (MR) is still a term with many meanings -- one is 2D video created by capturing within VR environments. Chase Holfelder went seriously meta with his cover of Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity." Teaming up with VRScout Studios, he dropped into notable VR experiences such as Accounting, Job Simulator, SoundStage, and Virtual Rick-ality and made music from the sounds pulled from various objects and actions. The result is a 2D video that has the familiar feel of a layered YouTube song...only in this case, all the components are virtual. For a deeper look at how the video was made, check out the behind the scenes featurette here.
Damian Kulash Jr. (OK Go) - Lambchild Superstar: Making Music in the Menagerie of the Holy Cow
Another Within-produced piece -- this time for OK Go frontman Damian Kulash Jr. -- showcases another side of the interactive music experience. In Lambchild, pairs of participants collaborate by "directing" animals, robots, and magical contraptions, and the result is the production of a unique song from all the different sounds. Wired called it VR's "reverse-Rock Band," which is probably the closest way to sum up the intersection it occupies.
Phantom - Lost
While the above video is a cinematic VR video, the full Oculus Rift experience is in fact interactive; users on the app discover that they can use their hands to manipulate space and generate sound and particle effects. It's a simple, intuitive mechanic, enmeshing you deeper into the celestial world of the video, and drawing you into the raw heart within the digital environment. The interplay of aquiline and rigid lines have a synesthetic effect, spiking and curling in unison with lead singer Hanna Toivonen's voice. The created space is aquatic, bringing together the edge of the galaxy with the bottom of the ocean.
If You Want to ESCAPE with Me...Beat Saber
Beat Saber was 2018's breakout VR game, and this video of SwanVR playing the song "Escape" -- captured for mixed reality via LIV -- is what initially put it on our radars. When you factor in all the syndicated video content, this video garnered views in the 9 figures, to say nothing of the resulting video and fan culture that sprung up in its wake (including "Darth Maul" Beat Saber videos). For many, this game was the final push to pony up and buy a VR rig -- and Swan's enthusiastic saber artistry is was kickstarted the craze.
Satin Sheets - Fashion (ESPRIT 空想 Remix)
I don't know how else to say it: this video feels like living inside a Sega Dreamcast. There's something delightfully turn-of-the-century about the song, a whispy, contemplative track that hearkens as much to vapor aesthetics as it does to FC Kahuna or Air. The juxtaposition of the visual coda (vague here to avoid spoilers) with the sonic uptick midway through is seductively tragic, and the slow circling perspective lends a surprising gravitas that more deeply contextualizes the instrumental track.
Imogen Heap on TheWaveVR
This experience was technically a holographic concert -- one of a number of superb experiences produced by TheWaveVR, a socialVR art platform where users can gather to experience live music and create art together. But of all their shows, this one feels the most spiritually aligned with the music video format -- grounded by the holographic presence of Heap threading the experience. Fans were also rewarded with an exclusive remix of "Hide and Seek," and some reported meeting Heap later on in TheWave -- showing how the medium might be used to integrate existing media formats and experiences in totally unprecedented ways.
YAO - Unraveled
Spatial audio continues to worm its way into the mainstream -- particularly with the rise of consumer headphones equipped with directional and ambient audio. YAO, a composer, sound designer, and artist from ICTUS Audio, who recently graduated from Berklee, brings an exceptional degree of craft to "Unraveled," cocooning listeners inside a soundscape that includes choir, vocalist, strings, synths -- and of course, accompanying imagery. The visuals aren't directly representational, but there's a clear dance between repression and release, contraction and expansion. Most notably: the directionality of the music is married to the visuals; wherever you turn your head, sound from that direction is "emphasized and filtered," making headphones a must here.
David Rosen - PalinDRONE 360
After working together on "Constellations 360," composer David Rosen and NewLine Videography came together to produce high-concept followup, "PalinDRONE 360." I've discussed the notion of "Narrative Potential" elsewhere, but in short: VR is a spatial medium that affords storytellers perceptual opportunities to use that space to generate story in the mind of participants. In this case, Rosen and NewLine make deft use of narrative potential -- constructed around the notion of a palindrome (a word that reads the same forward and backward).
Viewers begin inside a room wherein all the objects (including you) begin to float. Even in absence of any other people, there's an escalating sense of dread at this slow inversion of gravity -- particularly when you look up to realize that the "ceiling" is actually the floor. An identical floor to the one you're floating away from. The song's murky synth line adds to the slow creep -- imbuing this piece with far more heft than would be expected in its three short minutes. Depending on user preference, a brighter version of the video can be found here.
Brendon Small - Icarus 666
Dethklok fans rejoice, Brendon Small has blessed you with an immersive joyride, self-described as a "heavy metal Space Mountain VR ride with a metal symphony driving your spaceship." So strap in and get ready. With visuals created using the Tilt Brush toolkit, the ride is packed with vibrant imagery; at just under two minutes, it's going to feel way too short -- so feel free to stay on the ride for another whirl.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again - Waterloo
Ever wanted to live inside of a musical? Here's your chance. Jump into the Mamma Mia! sequel's rendition of "Waterloo," reshot as an intuitive immersive experience. Action is positioned around the user's POV, with both character and camera movement used strategically to guide attention. It's both simple and theatrical in the best way -- letting the characters do the work of sweeping you off your feet.