At SXSW, VR hits a new rhythm

Virtual reality was the buzz of this year's SXSW conference -- and music-based VR cut through the festival's noise.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
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Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

Virtual reality is pulling music videos back on stage for another encore -- if you can even call them "videos."

VR, which puts headset wearers in a digital world, was the buzziest technology topic at this year's SXSW Conference and Festivals in Austin, Texas, based on the 1.5 million #SXSW tweets from the middle of last week through the festivals' close on Sunday.

Fittingly for a fest with roots as a music blowout, music-based VR was the drumbeat underneath this year's event. Whether through straightforward experiences that animated specific songs, or interactions that nudged tunes into gaming, SXSW gave music-driven VR a chance to cut through the noise. Music is the latest trend to cycle through the emerging world of virtual reality, as artists, filmmakers, animators and others have experimented with the new medium over the last three years.

Now VR holds promise to evolve music videos into something deeper.

"A piece of music can define a moment in your life, and hearing it again years later can transport you back to that moment," said Chris Milk, the founder and CEO of virtual-reality company Within, who has directed videos for artists like Kanye West and Arcade Fire. Milk said he has spent most of his career trying to evoke that same depth of feeling, but he never felt he found it until he started creating in virtual reality.

"It's the closest thing to raw music I've ever found," Milk said. "Music and VR together will redefine what we understand a music video to be."

Music could help with one of the key challenges facing VR: quality content. Last year saw Sony, HTC, Samsung, Google and the Facebook-owned Oculus pour resources into launching hardware, but investments for VR media were much more limited. Premium VR content, especially compared to gaming, is harder to make and to fund, and it's tricky for consumers to find.

That's where music comes in. It checks off a lot of boxes crucial for VR to grow and reach consumers, according to Rob Ruffler, a senior director of Viacom Next, which showed off two music-based experiences at SXSW. Experimentation is key to the technology at this early stage, he said, and music provides a short-duration format that doesn't require creators to deliver a logical story, or even use words. Music provides a prime testing ground for artists to take risks with VR and reach a wider audience.

"It's fair to say that interest in music in VR has grown in the past year," Ruffler said.

Viacom has some pedigree in music videos: It's the company behind MTV, ground zero for the format when the channel launched 35 years ago. As music videos faded from the forefront of MTV and other "music" networks in favor of reality programming, the genre shifted onto online platforms like YouTube. Of the five all-time most-watched videos there that have surpassed 2 billion views, all but one are music videos.

Now VR may be music videos' third act.

The headliners of SXSW 2017

Virtual reality has been a growing presence at SXSW since Oculus began showing up here in 2013. This year, the festival inaugurated a "virtual cinema," a dimly lit meeting hall in downtown Austin's JW Marriott. Appropriately for VR, it was one of the few SXSW conference locales that fooled you into forgetting you were in a garden-variety hotel conference room or the middle of a convention center.

SXSW launched a "virtual cinema" hall this year, with 38 experiences.
Enlarge Image
SXSW launched a "virtual cinema" hall this year, with 38 experiences.

SXSW launched a "virtual cinema" hall this year, with 38 experiences.

Joan E. Solsman/CNET

The virtual cinema offered 38 experiences for badge-holders to try, with all types of virtual reality represented, but music-based VR stood out.

"Show It 2 Me" is one of the first VR experiences to take Google's Tilt Brush, a popular VR painting program, and hack it into an animating tool. Chris Prynoski, owner of the studio Titmouse, which made the video, was an artist in residence at Google and said he nudged the company to develop the capabilities. Tilt Brush's static VR sculptures have turned into experiences that can move through time.

The result is a trippy car ride through neon skulls and palm trees that flick into giant daggers, using audio-reactive brushes that pulse to the beat of Night Club's song.

Tilt Brush, coincidentally, won SXSW Interactive's award for virtual and augmented reality. The tools used for "Show It 2 Me" are part of Tilt Brush Toolkit, an open-source library already available for the program.

Milk's Within showed off a work-in-progress music video at the festival called "Vibrant Matter," which is one of the earliest nongaming VR experiences to experiment with interactivity on phone-powered headsets. It ran on a Google Daydream device and took advantage of the touchpad on its remote to let the viewer turn the landscape into jagged wave patterns at will.

Experiments with interactivity melded other music experiences into something participatory.

The most clearly gamelike was "Playthings VR: Karaoke Cruise," another work in progress that riffs on a Rock Band-style rhythm game. It builds on an existing VR experience called "Playthings: VR Music Vacation," which creates a fantasy realm of junk food transformed into interactive musical instruments to play. "Karaoke Cruise" dives into the parts of "Music Vacation" users liked the best, according to creator George Michael Brower, linked to a "Secret Rhythm Game Mode" in the current release.

In the demo of "Karaoke Cruise," two Touch controllers for the Oculus Rift morph into drumsticks. You sync your drumbeats to the rhythm of the music to score, but instead of hitting snares and reaching for high hats, you drum on oversize jelly beans, gummy bears and doughnuts flying toward you.

But others melded music and interactivity to experiment with something that wasn't quite gaming.


"The Melody of Dust" lets users explore a virtual room where they can mix sounds to create one of 87 unique songs.

The Melody of Dust

"The Melody of Dust" -- created by Viacom Next and Nick Koenig, better known by his stage name Hot Sugar -- gives users the freedom to create combinations of sounds to score their experience. In it, you move between a spinning fountain and a room filled with objects. Each object -- a bird, a rose, a bottle of champagne -- has a sound associated with it. When you throw them into the fountain, you create a unique melody that plays at the end of the experience. It has 87 different combinations that become songs, and Koenig plans to release 13 of the combinations as an album of songs at the end of the month.

Another was "Chocolate," the second VR music video by Tyler Hurd, who created last year's "Old Friend." While "Old Friend" drew praise for deftly re-creating the feeling of joy from dancing like a total idiot without caring how you looked, "Chocolate" was Hurd's experiment with more interactivity in music VR, he said. The experience turns you into a chrome robot whose hands can blast out psychedelic floating cats as ritualistic dancers and other cats pop champagne bottles and gyrate to the Giraffage song for which the video is named.

Both were presented by Viacom Next.

And for both "Chocolate" and "The Melody of Dust," there's no scoring or mission. In what's probably the best litmus test of an interactive experience, you don't want to play these "games" just once.

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