“What we’re building is a bit like Rock Band, except real. Those are actual musicians on the stage, and the people booing in the audience are real people. Although hopefully they won’t be booing…”
Adam Arrigo is CEO of TheWaveVR, the US startup that recently raised $2.5m of seed funding to develop its “social VR music platform”, which is due to launch later in 2016.
Arrigo knows about Rock Band: he used to work at the game’s developer Harmonix, initially as a lead sound designer on its music franchise, before working on projects including Disney’s Fantasia: Music Evolved and Harmonix Music VR.
More recently, he was the product lead at music/tech startup Zya, working on social app Ditty and music-creation game Song Battles. As a background for founding a music / virtual reality startup, it’s about perfect.
TheWaveVR’s investors include KPCB Edge – the seed-financing arm of VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers – as well as Seedcamp, whose investment team member Dave Haynes (previously of SoundCloud) is an adviser to Arrigo’s startup.
Another adviser is David Wexler, aka Strangeloop, who has worked on live visuals for artists including Flying Lotus, Skrillex and the Rolling Stones. His involvement is a clue to understanding what TheWaveVR does, and how it differs from another recently-emerged-from-stealth-mode music VR startup, MelodyVR.
The latter, which Music Ally recently profiled, puts 360-degree cameras in venues and films performances. TheWaveVR’s technology is more of an extension of stage visuals and music videos into VR.
MelodyVR wants to put fans in the front row (or on stage, or high up in the seats, etc) while TheWaveVR wants to put them in the middle of an interactive light-show – or “musical metaverse” as Arrigo has described it. Two very different approaches, which is a healthy thing at this stage of the music/VR market.
“The 360 stuff is a fundamentally different thing. Our platform is a social platform really. Most of my team’s background is the video game industry, and what inspires us is interaction,” he tells Music Ally.
“But many of us are also musicians. We know how hard it is to make money in the music industry these days. We want to use this new technology, virtual reality, to open up new revenue streams for artists.”
How will TheWaveVR’s technology work? Currently, it involves an artist or DJ performing their music by importing tracks and controlling the visuals.
“The performer is mixing their music live on-stage, in a set of 3D interfaces. Then the audience is interacting with one another, dancing – shaking their virtual booty, and painting with light,” says Arrigo.
“During one concert, someone drew the word ‘LIMBO’ with a limbo stick, and everybody started forming a line…”
It sounds like a conga for the virtual-reality age, if that isn’t too terrifying a prospect. But the best way to understand TheWaveVR is as sitting somewhere between a VJ set, a shared social experience in a virtual world (Second Life back in the day, for example) and a game.
“The venue is a giant, 3D music visualizer, responding to the amplitude, frequency and other parameters to create different shapes, colours and light. A lot of people have described it as similar to a drug trip,” says Arrigo.
“That’s all happening procedurally based on the music, but the performer can also control the visuals. If they apply a noise-filter effect to the music, that can also put a noisy visual effect in the entire world.”
“If they use a Bitcrusher, that might turn the world to pixels – and the audience experiences all of this stuff in real-time. The DJ can even hit a button at the drop and blast everyone off into space.”
Virtually, obviously. Rocket propulsion isn’t on the must-upgrade list for music venues just yet.
While TheWaveVR isn’t just for DJs and electronic musicians, it’s clear they’re going to be much of its focus: partly because this tech fits most neatly into what many are already doing with their live visuals. If you’ve been to a Chemical Brothers, Skrillex or Deadmau5 show recently, this should make sense.
“They’re using lasers and projection mapping and building these physical structures to create this Disneyland-esque immersion. But VR does that so much better and cheaper,” says Arrigo.
“Five years from now, the best experience of electronic music is going to be in VR… What artists are doing with visuals now is awesome: Amon Tobin’s live show totally blew my mind. But 5-10 years from now, I think we’ll be saying ‘I can’t believe we built all this stuff with physical material!’.”
There’s an argument against this: that the experience of a great electronic-music show isn’t just the audio-visuals, but the human aspect. If anything, I wonder if dancing in a big crowd of people to music you love – physically dancing in a real space – is going to become even more prized as our lives get more digital.
Something like TheWaveVR could be a replacement experience for fans unable to attend the concert in person, but it may be best pitched as an alternative, complementary experience. Which could make it more appealing to artists and the music industry: a new live revenue stream that doesn’t cannibalise the old one.
The social aspect of TheWaveVR will be interesting to watch develop. Arrigo says that “connecting people from different places in the world to interact live” is one of the biggest features of VR in general. Mark Zuckerberg clearly agrees.
“Part of the fun of being in an audience on our platform will be meeting other people: dancing with them and interacting in different ways. We’re still scratching the surface of what those interactions are and should be,” says Arrigo.
He warns that one of the pitfalls of VR is the uncanny valley of getting close-up to a computer-generated version of a human being and feeling revolted by its deficiencies – its not-quite-right-ness. Will a club full of dancing avatars kill the vibe?
“It’s one of our focuses design-wise: whatever VR dancing ends up being, you’re going to have to rethink it fundamentally so it’s something that’s fun and unique to the medium,” says Arrigo.
TheWaveVR has announced its funding round and is working towards the launch of its product, although some details are still under wraps. Distribution, for example: which headsets the platform will support.
“We haven’t settled on which platforms we’re going to launch on yet, but we’ve built it to be platform-agnostic,” says Arrigo – the sensible answer from any VR content startup in 2016. “The goal is to democratise this music experience on as many platforms as possible.”
That means smartphone-based VR headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR as well as high-end devices like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, at least for the fan experience. The DJ/artist music creation aspects will require the higher-end devices.
How does TheWaveVR make money? Again, the company is keeping its plans under wraps for now.
“We have considered a lot of different options: concert tickets, doing branded events, selling in-app purchases like virtual goods to customise your avatar, or even a subscription service,” says Arrigo.
“For now, our focus is on creating something people love and want to engage in. Getting the beta out and seeing how people engage with it.”
“Engagement is still the first priority for all VR developers. There hasn’t been that killer app yet where people have been ‘I have to use this EVERY day’. Some of the design challenges are unique to VR, and we’re all stll trying to figure out what works experience-wise.”
Naturally, there are rights discussions to be had with labels and publishers about TheWaveVR’s plans, as well as with managers and artists to get them on board.
Arrigo admits that reactions have run the gamut from wild excitement to incomprehension – the latter a hazard of the job when pitching this kind of platform in a phone call rather than in-person with a demo.
“We’ve been surprised by the enthusiasm that artists have for this. Not just about making money in VR, but about creating this new type of music content and performance,” he says. “We’re not trying to replace DJing or live concerts. We’re trying to provide this alternative experience.”
The creative aspect may be TheWaveVR’s strongest pitch, tapping in to a history of musicians exploring new technology for live visuals. Imagine what Pink Floyd would have done with this in the 1960s, for example, with tech that now seems rudimentary.
“We think of ourselves as adding a third dimension to the way we experience music. The sound is the first, the second one is the visuals, and the third one is interactivity: in a way reaching out and touching the music and interacting with it, and with other fans,” says Arrigo.
“I think VR can make it much more like a dream or a hallucination than we’ve ever done before: taking you to a different place. And the cool thing is enabling the artist to have a hand in that as well.”