It's late afternoon on a Friday in early August and I have just stepped inside a virtual reality dance party.
Jen Lasher, an L.A.-based DJ and resident at Your Mom's House Party at the Short Stop in Echo Park, is playing. I only know this because I saw her before pressing a Samsung Gear against my eyes. In virtual reality, Lasher looks like a cat. In fact, the party avatars surrounding me all look like candy-colored cartoon felines. Did I just step into some alien furball realm?
Bass runs down my spine and pulsates against the sides of my face as I dance. The volume is never too loud, never uncomfortable, but the sound is powerful. It's propelling me to move while I turn my head to examine more of this odd space.
I realize that I can scribble in the air with the motions of my head. I write my name and am taken aback when I notice how much my headwriting resembles my handwriting. Trippy!
I remove the Gear. My back is turned towards a DJ that I was facing in the VR scene.
I tweeted about the experience and wouldn't be surprised if anyone who read those posts assumed I was high. The VR Rave is probably stranger than anything you've seen go down at an IRL music event. It's like living inside the party fliers that piled up on Melrose Avenue in the 1990s. The future dreams that captivated dance music fans at the end of the 20th century are coming to fruition in the 21st.
As consumer-friendly virtual reality headsets have become more accessible, entertainment companies have been augmenting their flagship properties with VR content. In the music event world, that has meant offering 360-degree video from festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival and Coachella that can be viewed through devices like Google Cardboard.
The VR Rave is different in that the event itself is built inside the virtual world. Sure, DJ and audience are actually playing and dancing, but their primary interactions happen in the virtual party. If you're watching the scene without a headset, you'll see someone at the front of the space jumping up and down, pumping controllers in the air. That's the DJ. You'll also see dancers with headsets, headphones and odd-looking backpacks attached them. None of them will be able to see you gawking at them.
The event made its debut at VRLA, a twice-annual gathering at Los Angeles Convention Center for virtual reality enthusiasts. It took four different companies — TheWaveVR, SubPac, 3D Live and Skullcandy — to make it happen.
The VR Rave works on multiple levels. The virtual reality elements come from TheWaveVR and their yet-to-be-released technology that allows artists to perform music in front of an audience inside a virtual world. While the goal is to eventually support artists of many different genres, right now the focus is on DJ performances.
With TheWave, the DJ can play a set to the crowd in virtual reality and, just as they can trigger the music, they can trigger the scenery surrounding the performance. “For example, on the drop, the DJ can press a button and transform the venue from realistic nightclub to blasting through outer space,” says the company's L.A.-based CEO and co-founder Adam Arrigo.
The audience members don't have to share the same IRL space as the DJ. They can be anywhere on the planet and enter that room to dance and interact with others.
“Having the opportunity for people across the world to come to the same show, it's way more impactful than watching it on YouTube on a live stream,” says Ryan Pardeiro, co-founder of 3D Live. There also needs to be something for people who are in the same room as the VR ravers, but aren't using virtual reality — and that's where Pardeiro's company comes into the picture.
3D Live, which also recently worked on visuals for Lucent Dossier's Coachella performance, brought in their LED technology to essentially broadcast what was going on in virtual reality to those who were in regular reality. “We're able to take what's normally a singular, closed-in, almost tunnel vision-like experience for one person and open that up and allow hundreds or even thousands of people to participate in that virtual environment,” he says. They worked with TheWave to bring the visuals generated by the app to the big screen.
Of course, even in a virtual-reality rave, the music has to sound right. Utah-based Skullcandy has been working on headphones specifically for VR experiences. The company was at VRLA to show their Crusher VRA headphones, due out in 2017, that essentially surround the listener with bass, the levels of which they can adjust. It's transmitting sound that you can feel, thus bringing another sense into the experience. The headphones work to make you feel like you're listening to music at a club or in a concert venue instead of at home via your computer.
“It is an acoustic experience, but it's also a tactile experience,” says Sam Paschel, Skullcandy's chief commercial officer. “When you're at a venue or a gig or you go to a concert, you're hearing the music, you're experiencing what's happening around you visually. You're also getting the psycho-acoustic response of feeling the vibration of that music on your skin.”
At the VR Rave, they took the feel of music one step further by incorporating SubPacs — those odd-looking backpacks, which make you feel like you're dancing against a subwoofer.
“It's definitely about engaging a third sense,” says Ryan Origin, a DJ who works with SubPac and helped orchestrate the VR Rave. He mentions the kids that you'll see at festivals hanging out by the speaker stacks. “They want that bass pulsing through their bodies. There's something really satisfying about that.”
In bringing together sight, sound and touch, the VR Rave is breaking new ground for still-burgeoning virtual reality technology. Before the VRLA conference, TheWave had never been used to support multiple artists in a live performance setting. “We collectively look at this as a proof of concept,” says Origin. “We pulled it off.”
While the glitches were minimal at the first VR Rave, the team still has a lot to think about before they can take it somewhere else. They still have to understand what kind of problems may arise if they bring this to a multi-day, outdoor event. They have to figure out how many headsets they might need for a party at a club. It's all new territory, but that's part of what makes it exciting.
“Yeah, it was an activation at a trade show, effectively, so it's not necessarily the same environment as 2,000 people in a huge room with a sound system,” says Origin, “but I think that the thing we were imagining is starting to come true.”
Liz Ohanesian writes about DJ culture, electronic music and other subjects for L.A. Weekly. Her work also has appeared in Playboy, Noisey, Village Voice and a number of other publications. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.