As one may expect, the circumstances for this year’s NYE celebration was slightly different than a full-blown warehouse party, laced with smoke, laser beams, and a couple of hundred people out to see the sunrise.
This year, I set out to discover a digital reincarnation of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in VRChat, the venue for Welcome to the Other Side, a virtual concert by electronic music legend Jean-Michel Jarre.
Arriving at the Venue
Jumping into VRChat with my Oculus Quest 2, I used the social VR platforms search function to locate Welcome to the Other Side. It was top listed, so I jumped straight into the venue. When I arrived I was required to select the level of animation desired based on my VR headset and PC’s capabilities.
I arrived at the back of the Notre-Dame Cathedral between giant gothic columns which guided my eyes to the impossibly high ceiling above. As I inched forward the audio began to kick in. Running into a crowd of enthused NPCs (non-player characters) I could hear automated cheering and the roar of an artificial audience, similar to what you might hear during your average sitcom.
Quickly, I located Jean-Michel Jarre, a glowing red avatar with his hands poised above a range of synthesizers, symbolically placed in lieu of an altar. It appeared that the show was only just beginning. Jarre addressed the audience in French and English, and I waved my arms around to support the atmosphere as the pit began to fill with human attendees.
I stood near the front of the stage, teleporting back and forth to explore the limitations of the venue as Jarre began to play. Incredible lighting synced with the crescendo of notes as they enveloped the Cathedral, where in real life, such a concert would have been impossible with its acoustics.
Above, the stained glass windows glowed with an unearthly luminescence. Once I finished inspecting the front of the venue, I dodged between the columns towards the back, looking for hidden nuggets. It was here I discovered a menu that would beam me to the upper floor.
Up I went, gaining a new perspective on the centre aisle that focused all attention to the avatar on stage. Below, a mix of NPC’s and human attendees moved to the beat of Jarre’s infectious electronic performance. The atmosphere was beautifully constructed. Upon exiting the show, however, I found myself wishing I’d been able to interact more with the experience as well as the attendees. Still, I was impressed with the team’s progress since their first virtual concert Alone Together.
Opening up the menu to leave, I was delighted to find an after-party for the concert listed on my world menu. I entered the world, this time arriving at a square in front of the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Assuming the after-party was inside, I scurried my avatar towards the lights. Inside I was greeted with a replay of the original concert experience. This is when I realized I had only experienced a recording of the actual live performance; you will find out the technical reasons for this shortly.
Undeterred, I ventured back outside the digital venue. I was surprised by the developers decision to enclose the square with buildings, as in Paris, the Cathedral sits on Île de la Cité, enclosed by the River Seine. All-in-all, however, it was a charming recreation. I even spotted a couple avatars having a lovely conversation about their headsets, motion tracking, the concert, and VR as a whole.
Next, I set off to investigate a series of massive lights illuminating out of the manholes that lined the square. I maneuvered my avatar to drop through the drainpipe, revealing yet another replay of the Jarre concert. Each drainpipe offered a different angle or segment of the original show.
Frustrated from hearing and seeing the same performance multiple times, I went to the next light source, a giant spotlight beaming down from a Hindenburg-style airship. As the light captured my avatar, I was beamed up to the ship, where the same Jarre concert started to play again. Here I also found several replication of the synths that Jarre had used during the concert. And while I enjoyed watching a hot dog avatar with a young French voice point his breadstick fingers at the keys in an attempt to play, the instruments were unfortunately only there for show.
After several back-and forth’s between the recorded concert and the after-party to see if more people would arrive, I jumped out for the final time.
Speaking with the Designers and Developers
As part of my mission to better understand how virtual concerts are developed and influenced by technology, I spoke with Antony Vitillo, lead developer behind Jarre’s VRChat concerts, and Louis Cacciuttolo, founder and CEO of VRrOOm, the team responsible for the design of the concert.
With Vitillo, I get a better sense of the challenges that come with creating a virtual concert.
“The real problem isn’t the quality of the experience, it’s the number of people,” he says, highlighting the limitations of modern multiplayer experiences.
Theoretically, an unlimited number of people can attend a virtual event; the problem comes when too many people try to log on at one time (crashing the party with data overload). This is when sharding occurs.
For readers new to the ins-and-outs of virtual worlds, you can think of sharding as duplicates of the event that branch off every time the capacity of one room is maxed out. Say, for example, you’re waiting in line for a popular dance club, but the venue is at max capacity. Instead of having to wait in line for the club to empty or people to leave, another identical club magically appears right next door with the same exact live performances. This is the real-world equivalent of sharding.
In the case of VRChat, the social VR platform used for the Jean-Michel Jarre concerts, the maximum per-instance (room) capacity is 40 individuals. This means that if you are the 41st person to arrive at the concert, you’ll be transported to a new instance of the same show; an exact copy similar to the one I attended. After 39 more people arrive, the 81st person will be bumped into a new instance, and so on and so forth.
This brings us to the challenge of automation, and how to ensure that every audience member in each instance has the same high-quality experience.
“We can make a great experience for 40 people, but more is difficult,” says Vitillo. “This is the big limitation, the number of people and synchronizing it. In a real concert, there are thousands, tens of thousands of people. That’s what makes a big concert amazing.”
“We didn’t know how to bring Jean-Michel Jarre into the public rooms, we liked the idea of taking the video streaming and creating a hologram from the video, and making the background disappear. We also tried to add a depth effect,” says Vitillo, speaking of his first concert with Jarre, Alone Together.
By public rooms, Vitillo is referring to all instances of the virtual concert created after the first instance reaches capacity.
“Everything is a big compromise,” he says. “There’s a lot of data to work with, you can’t put in everything you want otherwise it crashes.”
“I got many critics of the last concert, but a lot of people thanked me for the blog piece I wrote. If I made some errors, and other people can avoid them… In part it was very successful, in part, it was a failure.”
Vitillo is brave to speak about this. As well as leading the development of this concert and many other prominent events such as Venice VR Expanded, Vitillo is a well-known figure in the virtual community thanks to his blog The Ghost Howls. Vitillo is renowned for his honesty and fearlessness in talking about the positive and negative aspects of immersive technology
“This technology is at an early stage, it’s not possible to do everything you want to do, but in the end, it’s already possible to do amazing things. This is important for people to know,” says Vitillo.
Choosing a Platform
Choosing a platform is an incredibly important part of the decision because it will determine the development and aesthetic parameters of a virtual concert.
VRrOOm CEO and founder Cacciuttolo says he got a lot of push back for choosing VRChat as a platform for the VR concerts, but when I ask him about the reasons for this choice, he is quick to respond:
“I deeply believe that it’s the most interesting social VR platform in the way that it engages with the users,” he says. “VRChat also allows UGC [user-generated content], with access to its backend and creative tools.”
When I ask Cacciuttolo if he would like to build his own platform, he says he’s not so interested because the technology just isn’t quite there yet.
“I want to go to the bottom of it, and learn more and more,” he says. “I want to refine what we are already doing, and reach a level of excellence so that our partners can be safe, and so that we can deliver it in the best way.”
When Will Artists Have the Tools They Need for Virtual Concerts?
When it comes to the millions of artists around the world—entire generations of musicians who find themselves without a stage in which to perform, the budgets to produce, or the tools to reach their fans in the emerging virtual concert industry—Cacciuttolo isn’t sure when they will have the tools they need to enter the virtual concert industry. In the mean time, Cacciuttolo is working on various monetization models with the goal of developing a plausible, lucrative endeavor for independent artists.
“Anyone who wants to go back in [the venue] will be able to relive the show by pressing a button with the JMJ avatar performing. Right now VRChat doesn’t have a monetization model like Sansar, or other platforms. They say they will implement a ticketing system next year. We want to show that since we have this replayability, people will be willing to pay for it.”
Cacciuttolo makes an interesting point that even though there are platforms where virtual concerts can take place, monetization has not been the focus for creators using these platforms. It means that creating compelling virtual concerts for a global audience today must be done primarily with public or major label funding to cover the costs. This presents an impasse to up-and-coming artists looking to reach their audiences virtually.
There are a few things that Vitillo speaks of when I ask him about what he’d put on his wishlist for developing future concerts.
“We have to find a way with 5G, we need optimization of data so that we can see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear. We need time,” he says.
Vitillo is also frustrated by the limitations of the Oculus Quest; a standalone VR device he believes sacrifices high-quality VR for consumer viability in terms of price and ease of use.
“It’s really a pain in the ass because there are so many limitations like 50MB for the world, frame rate, etc. Whatever you do is too much for the device. When you finally manage to publish the world, you see that there are so many limitations,” he says.
He also lists more development control on the platform as something that would greatly improve the design of the concerts. Although VRChat is one of the most accommodating platforms for developers, it still does not offer the full capabilities of Unity, the game engine that the platform is developed with.
“Doing something from scratch is really difficult and time-consuming. This is why we use VRChat, because they have already done the heavy lifting, but if I had the full power, I could do much more, especially with the interactions of the user. I want this to be able to go beyond that,” he says.
“We achieved something, we made a point, that these types of things can happen in VR, and it was also transmitted to other channels, giving VR a lot of visibility,” says Vitillo.
There are many challenges still to overcome, such as creating a live experience for everyone who attends. There were some frustrating design points such as endless replays of the same concert that deterred rather than rewarded my sense of exploration, but still this initial step towards digital rewards was good to see.
In the future I hope to see additional content, such as various unlockables and digital art from a variety of artists decorating the venue or after-party area, as there are so many up-and-coming artists who would benefit from cultural events such as these.
Regardless, I have singled out Alone Together and Welcome to the Other Side as two of the most significant virtual concerts of 2020 because of their truly groundbreaking exploration of the potential of VR.
One day, all artists will have the tools necessary to create and perform in ways previously unimaginable, unhindered by time, space, budget, and even physics. If you want to learn more about what a virtual concert is and Jarre’s hopes for the future, you can check out my interview with him here.