January 7, 2016:Universal Music reveals VR push as $599 Oculus Rift sales begin

Yesterday was a big day for the virtual reality (VR) industry as consumer pre-orders began for the Oculus Rift headset, three years after the successful Kickstarter campaign for its first developer version.

But there was also some high-profile music/VR news, as Universal Music and iHeartMedia announced plans to work on VR concerts together. Or “revolutionary, fully immersive entertainment experiences” as the press release inevitably put it.

Essentially, every big iHeartMedia festival or event in 2016 will now have a UMG artist playing a show filmed for VR, with four additional standalone gigs arranged for an “iHeartRadio VR Concert Series”. dhhjfd

The companies will be trying to get brands on board to sponsor the performances, too. Further details of how the concerts will be distributed have yet to be announced: we suspect it’ll be more about smartphone apps and Google Cardboard headsets than Oculus Rifts though.

That’s because the Rift is going to be an expensive niche for the moment. Until pre-orders began yesterday, nobody knew how much the Facebook-owned headset would cost to buy.

Now we do: $599, and that’s not including the cost of the high-end PC that many people will need to upgrade to alongside it – Oculus says Rift/PC bundles will start at $1,499.

Last week, meanwhile, chipset maker Nvidia claimed that only 13m PCs this year will have the necessary graphical power to support VR – less than 1% of all PCs in use.

There are two reasons not to write VR off though. First, this is about the long game: Nvidia reckons there’ll be 100m VR-capable PCs by 2020, so for companies like Universal Music, experimenting now is about preparing for a much bigger market in the future.

Second, VR is already not just about headsets costing hundreds of dollars. In fact, there are hundreds of millions of VR-capable devices out in the wild already: Android and iOS smartphones, which only need a $20-$30 Cardboard housing to become headsets.

Facebook and YouTube already both support 360-degree videos distributed via their mobile apps – YouTube also has a separate ‘VR video’ format that gives an impression of depth as well as panning around the camera – and it’s these channels that are likely to provide the biggest audiences for the kind of VR concert experiences that Universal and iHeartMedia are planning.

Along with the Android and Apple app stores for standalone apps, as shown by music-linked VR startups Vrse.works and Jaunt, as well as individual artists like Björk.

The two strands of modern VR technology – expensive headsets like the Oculus Rift, Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive; and cheaper Google Cardboard-style housings for smartphones teamed with Facebook, YouTube and app distribution – are ripe for more experimentation around music.

But while it’s easy to claim that the resulting content will be revolutionary and immersive, the challenge will be to genuinely deliver that, rather than spin-the-camera-round gimmickry.

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Stuart Dredge
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