Strap on a headset and fire up Tyler Hurd’s “Old Friend,” and you’re instantly transported to a world of little green men flailing in time to indie band Future Islands. The experience is beautiful and immersive — for a few minutes, you feel like you’ve left earth and headed to another dimension in a bizarre, whimsical music video.
It’s a feeling that’s not limited to Hurd’s experience, either — plenty of other music-based experiences for tethered devices, such as Impossible Travel Agency, La Peri, and Carry Me all leave the user feeling similarly transported.
Compare these to some of the 360-degree music experiences that were released last year, like “Crown” by Run the Jewels or “Don’t Let Love Go By” by Golden Suits, and you can’t help but feel a little less immersed. Both videos are well-done, filled with great imagery and movement, but there are only so many places either one can take you. If the user moves up and down, the experience is jarring rather than responsive.
There are a limited number of places you can actually look and a handful of actions you can take. But the 360 videos do have one massive upside — anyone with a smartphone and a headset, no matter how cheap, can participate and view them. With tethered devices still prohibitively expensive and cumbersome for the average user, magical experiences like “Old Friend” remain off-limits to most.
After initial apprehension, many in the music world now believe that VR will be an important part of the business going forward. The question now becomes whether they invest in creating 360 content, which is less immersive but more accessible, or tethered content, which is more magical but still much harder to view.
This question doesn’t have to be either/or, and there’s not really a single right answer. “I think both are very important,” says Anthony Batt, the founder of Wevr, which produced “Old Friend.” “A song is a story, and in some cases it works for an artist to really immerse people in it. But in other cases, like the Run the Jewels video, it worked well in 360. In 2017, the bigger focus is going to be getting more musicians into the medium in all different ways, because the medium needs to be vibrant to move forward.”
“The music video is the last true vestige of experimental film making, and that’s an incredible tool for VR filmmakers and musicians looking to make art,” said Jason Koffeman, director of Golden Suits’ video, “Don’t Let Love Go By,” and Head of Content at Moth + Flame. (Full disclosure: I’ve consulted on some projects for Moth+Flame but was not involved in this one.)
“But a music video is also marketing, so the number of eyeballs you get is very important,” he continues. “Room scale experiences are an amazing outlet for art and we’re going to see access there expand. Right now 360 video offers not only more eyeballs [than Oculus or Vive] but we’re seeing 360 video being viewed even more than traditional video. So when an indie band has an amazing song they want to make sure gets viewers in today’s over-saturated media marketplace, 360 video is a great way to sing through the noise.”
For many in the music business, the biggest issue when it comes to determining whether to create tethered or 360 content will be the cost. Video and marketing budgets have dramatically decreased since the heyday of the nineties, and labels and managers often look to brands to supplement costs. Brands, in turn, generally want the most eyeballs on an experience that they can get, and it’s hard to get those eyes in a device that has limited distribution.
Some use cases in music also just aren’t feasible in a tethered environment. Watching a live concert in VR, for instance, would be fantastically complicated to do on a Vive or a Rift; even though the experience is slightly less immersive it’s still much more practical to do in 360. Massive activations at live shows also won’t work in a tethered environment; it makes far more sense to have users pick up cheaper headsets at the front door and watch 360 videos during specific songs as opposed to creating a world where only a few can participate. The exception to this might be an experience like EMA’s “I Wanna Destroy,” where one person sits in the headset while others watch the artist perform and the user’s experience is projected for the audience to see. Even in this case, it only works in a small performance space where every user eventually has the opportunity to participate and doesn’t scale up to an arena show.
One place where tethered music experiences can work well is in the live activation space, particularly at festivals. Anyone who does a loop of Coachella or Bonnaroo this summer should expect to see brands setting up booths that feature tethered experiences, many of which will probably feature some sort of social component. One of the most interesting experiences at Future of Storytelling in 2016 was “Flock,” where users participated in an immersive world as birds and interacted with one another — a few tweaks and that could easily be a music-driven dance party.
And as far as purely artistic pieces go, the tethered experience does allow for a level of creative freedom that a 360 video just can’t at this point. “In my mind, it’s more important for people to see the art as it was intended, even if the availability is limited,” says Tyler Hurd, who created “Old Friend.” Hurd also said he expects that within a few years, technology will advance to the point that people can have tethered experiences wirelessly and what could have once only been viewed on an expensive machine will be available to the general public.
It seems the tethered versus mobile debate simply comes down to a few factors — what story do you want to tell; how much money do you have to tell it; and how many people do you want to see the experience? As music becomes more of a creative force in the VR world, the most important thing will be creating great content and getting it in front of as many people as possible, whatever form it ultimately takes.