In Lambchild Superstar you instruct animals to operate musical instruments.
ABOUT FOUR MINUTES into the VR experience Lambchild Superstar, you start to feel like you’re on acid at Coachella. (Not that we’d know about that kind of thing.) Instead of watching a life-changing Beyoncé performance, though, you’re the one making the music ... and one of the instruments is a magic-mushroom-eating cow that farts notes when you pull its tail. Actually, all of the instruments here are powered by animals in some way. But the music they make is disarmingly fun—and eventually, you get over the synesthesia and disorientation and lean into the trip.
Created by OK Go frontman Damian Kulash and Within CEO Chris Milk, Lambchild Superstar: Making Music in the Menagerie of the Holy Cow (full title) harnesses the capabilities of social VR to let people make music together across geographical distances. You don’t really need to know how to play music to do it—choosing a chord progression or dropping in a drum loop is as easy as pushing a button—but the results are completely unique compositions of your own making. Think of it as the reverse-Rock Band.
“What’s great about those types of games is that there’s a song and you get to converge towards playing it; you get the joy of getting closer and closer to feeling like you’re playing it,” says Kulash. “This was the exact opposite. What we’re trying to get people to do is experience the joy that happens when you add two sounds together and, instead of getting a new sound, you get an emotion.”
Yes, Lambchild Superstar is all about feelings. When I played it at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it premiered on the apropos date of 4/20, I spent a good deal of time just laughing. (Thankfully, me and my music-making partner, Within co-founder Aaron Koblin, were behind curtains—no one got hot ‘gram of me cheesing with an Oculus headset stuck to my face.)
The concept is pretty intuitive: You and a friend in another headset walk around in the VR environment’s bright open field making music using Oculus’ Touch controllers. Your “band” is a, yes, menagerie of animals that are used to play instruments: octopi play guitars, an eel makes electronic noises, woodland creatures create drum machine effects. The whole thing is kind of silly, but thanks to some pre-programmed sounds and a lot of experimentation, it’s easy to make something that you can bob your head to.
However, when Milk and Kulash first started collaborating, making music wasn’t the goal. The pair met back in 2013 when Milk directed a project for the YouTube Music Awards that OK Go played a small part in; the two stayed in touch with the goal of eventually making something together. There were just two problems: OK Go was already pretty good at videos and Milk was moving into VR, a format that wouldn’t really adapt well to the carefully choreographed style the band was known for. “They don’t need a music video director,” Milk jokes.
“We tried to cross that line a couple times with existing projects where it was like ‘We’re doing this cool video, can we film it in 360-degrees and make that feel immersive?’” Kulash says “It’s not that those wouldn’t have been cool, but they definitely felt like pasting something on. It didn’t feel like we were doing what [Milk] does best.”
Creating fantasy lands where people hang out together, however, is. Last year at the Tribeca Film Fest, Milk and Within shared Life of Us, a shared VR experience where you and a friend can essentially run through human evolution together. The experiences, often the result of Milk and his co-founder Koblin wanting to hang out while they’re in different cities, let people use VR to just chill and play—a feeling reminiscent of the booms caused by social games like Rock Band or Wii Sports.
“The big critique of virtual reality is that you go in and shut out the world around you,” Milk told me earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. “But these are all digital devices connected to a digital network and it shouldn’t be that big of a thing to put you together with someone.” And, lest you think being with the digital avatar of your friend isn’t the same as having them on your couch, Milk says the feelings are real: “It doesn’t matter what the thing looks like—if you recognize the soul of your friend inside a character, the connection is there."
Lambchild Superstar isn’t available publicly yet, but Milk and company hope to release it soon. And when it gets released into the world, it might serve as a bridge between the hardcore gaming world of VR and the one being embraced by filmmakers and other creatives. It’s likely that some gamers, should they find it, would enjoy Lambchild. But that latter group, the one that often shows up at places like the Tribeca Film Festival, has been moving toward projects with more social relevance. Will musical cow farts have a similar impact with them? Oculus’ Yelena Rachitsky, an executive producer on the project, thinks so.
“Art is a response to society, even on the other side, which is creating fun at times that are challenging,” she says. “Creating vibracy is its own social good.”