In a previous life, Chris Milk was directing music videos for Kanye West, Courtney Love and Arcade Fire, but today he's channeling those talents into virtual reality, straddling two different VR companies, Here Be Dragons (formerly known as Vrse) and Within. At this year's SXSW Milk is showcasing a new VR music video Justice's Chorus, which he describes as a "crazy exploration from the mind of Tyler Hurd" - Hurd being the creator of Sundance award-winning VR music video Chocolate.
With the premiere of Ready Player One a big talking point of the festival, it feels like a perfect time to take stock of the state of VR. SXSW has become a home for virtual reality to demonstrate its more artistic flourishes, mainly in music and film, and Chorus is just one project being shown off in the festival's "virtual cinema" marketplace. "The booths are much nicer and it's a way bigger room," Milk jokes, but it shows that this medium is being taken more and more seriously.
Milk's first VR project was a collaboration with Beck in 2013 on his cover of David Bowie's Sound and Vision, turning the performance into a 360-degree video and audio experience (the two would collaborate again on Hello, Again). Milk created a 360-degree video and audio version of Beck's David Bowie cover song, Sound and Vision.
That was, relatively speaking, the "early days" of VR's current wave, and as the technology has become more attainable for those of us consuming it, so too have the tools to build these experiences.
"I think you're definitely seeing the overall quality rise considerably year to year, and the tools becoming better and more democratized," says Milk. "You don't have to have a computer science degree to make something awesome."
Milk does add that he expected there to be more professional cameras on the market by now. "But it's coming. It's certainly way easier than a few years ago where we were gluing GoPros together and trying to stitch stereo out of them. We're ways beyond that but I'd love to see more advancement in that area."
Milk's interest in bringing music and VR together stems from a belief in their unique kinship. "It can go to a much deeper place than other forms of media like books or televisions or movies," he says. "And what's cool about VR is that it is the same experiential thing that raw music has going on by itself, but it's building upon it.
"The simple example is that one song that was your favorite song that summer, that song and that experience are linked together, and when you hear that song it takes you back to that time," Milk continues. "VR has the potential not only to recreate what that song did for that summer, but it has the potential to create that entire summer. What if you could go back and live that summer again instead of just the memory triggered by that song? So as an artistic format it's super interesting. If that's your canvas, then you can paint a lot of interesting pictures on it."
And artists have taken to this canvas in droves; virtual reality has moved from sideshow curiosity into a major part of some of the world's biggest film festivals including Tribeca, Sundance, Toronto and Cinequest. In 2017 we saw the first Oscar-nominated VR project, Pearl, and countless others have attracted acclaim. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Carne y Arena brought VR to the hot-button issue of US-Mexico immigration, also earning him Academy recognition.
'I'd love to see more people get it wrong'
But it takes time to learn how to use any new tool effectively. "It's a natural process of any new medium that's coming into fruition," says Milk. "At first nobody knows what what to do with it, and a bunch of tech demos with it, and as time passes people begin crafting things and learning from each other."
VR is a larger canvas, but it also requires a rethinking of the entire process, from the creators to the actors, as VR producer Travis Cloyd explained recently. Even now, people will still get it wrong, but Chris Milk, think that's still a good thing. "There are definitely pieces I've seen where I've been like, 'That didn't do anything for me', but to say anyone has done something specifically wrong, unless I'm like vomiting coming out of it - everyone should be trying things that could be wrong. This is the only way to build a viable meaningful medium, is to have a highway of artistic failures. You only learn through getting it wrong. I'd love to see more people getting it wrong.
"More people getting it wrong would be great - because it would teach more people how to get it right."
I also asked Milk what his biggest frustration is with the VR industry right now. Not a lot, was the answer, but he sees the problem of access and attainability to be the biggest obstacle holding VR back from flourishing into a mainstream visual medium. "Id love if we figured out what the cracking of a code was for a device that's built for mass consumer adoption," says Milk. "I don't think that having a headset that plugs into a really expensive gaming computer is the path to mass consumer adoption, and probably neither is something you have to give up using your phone.
"I do think, and most people do, that having a dedicated device that is just for VR, and isn't tethered to another computer, and sits on a charging base and you pick up and put on and you're instantly inside the thing you want to be inside of... Those barriers of entry, those hurdles you have to cross of turning computers on and booting them up and updating drivers and all that stuff, are definitely hurdles."
This year, Facebook will launch the Oculus Go, its first standalone headset, Lenovo has its own all-in-one, the Mirage Solo, and countless other will no doubt follow. Standalone VR is set to be a major trend of 2018, so Chris Milk might just get his wish.
"The big question is what is the device my mom and her book club are going to buy to share experiences together? It's probably not going to look like a Google Cardboard, but it's also not going to look like a Vive and PC."