An authentic festival experience featuring live music, original art, and a general sense of lawlessness.
For the first time in its iconic 50 year history, event organizers were forced to cancel the 2020 Glastonbury Music Festival due to concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Normally held in Somerset, England, the five-day celebration of contemporary arts has spent the past 15 years establishing itself as one of the biggest music festivals in the world thanks to a regular lineup of jaw-dropping talent, including performances by Radiohead, Coldplay, Beyoncé, David Bowie, Jay-Z, Oasis, Paul McCartney, and dozens of other superstar acts.
2020 was shaping up to be yet another big one for the annual festival, having already confirmed performances by Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, possibly even the Spice Girls. That was before event organizers announced this part March that they were postponing the event until 2021.
Rather than abandon the celebration entirely, however, Glastonbury’s Shangri-La team partnered with social VR platform Sansar to bring the Glastonbury experience to VR as part of a two-day online event which absolutely shattered all of my expectations. Live music, thought-provoking art, and independent film-making; all coming together to create one of the more memorable social experiences I’ve had in a VR headset.
Designed after the infamous Shangri-La portion of Glastonbury—a more chaotic, less corporatized corner of the celebration—the Lost Horizon VR festival grounds was composed of a main lobby, personal theater, art gallery, and four virtual stages, each of which featuring a different genre or theme of music.
When I first entered the lobby, I was greeted by a handful of in-game staff there to help guide me through some of the basic controls and answer any questions I may have. It felt weird taking advice from a break-dancing anime character riding a skateboard, but hey, this is Shangri-La. Despite their outlandish avatars, each staff member was incredibly professional and offered an additional level of personality to the experience that would have been impossible to recreate with scripted non-playable characters.
These brief interactions ended up being some of my favorite moments from the festival. Kicking back on a rustic couch and shooting the breeze with some friendly Scotts, tossing a digital beach ball around with strangers, and chatting with staff really helped sell the festival vibe the organizers were going for.
Of course the biggest appeal of Lost Horizon was the music. Over the course of the two-day event over 50 performers—from DJ’s and multi instrumental artists to singer-songwriters and bands—graced the four different stages of Shangri-La, offering a wide variety of tunes across numerous genres. This is a UK festival, however, so naturally there was a lot of drum-and-bass. And I mean a lot.
Hoping to remain as authentic to the festival experience as possible, multiple acts performed simultaneously across the four stages throughout each day, forcing attendees to pick-and-choose who they’d like to see perform live. Hoping to catch the tail end of another performance? Well then you had better grab your crew and start sprinting to the next stage. This ended up being more difficult than I thought, as there was plenty of incredible acts to catch.
Fatboy Slim, Carl Cox, Noisia, Jamie Jones, Seth Troxler, Frank Turner, Alabama 3, and Coldcut; just some of the many many acts that performed live on stage as either a 2D green screen hologram or a custom 3D avatar. Meanwhile, each acts personal lighting engineers, or “VJ’s,” operated the visuals in real-time using a device the team refers to as “Party In A Box.”
Each venue was carefully crafted to maximize the efficiency of the space, allowing everyone in the audience to watch the performance regardless of their position; not that everyone was looking at the stage. Plenty of festival-goers were in full party mode, breaking out into full dance routines and screaming and singing along to the music. At one point I even witnessed inter-species intimacy between a foul-mouthed turtle and an intoxicated panda. Classic Shangri-La, am I right?
When I needed an escape from the chaos of the dance floor, I retreated into the art gallery or the private theater, lovingly referred to as “SHIT TV” to enjoy some curated art and independent films. Scattered throughout the gallery, stages, and central hub of Lost Horizon were over 200 pieces of curated art submitted by independent creators. To my surprise I found myself taking frequent breaks from the music to enjoy the many pieces featured throughout the space, some of which offering powerful messages regarding the state of our world.
It’s this blend of music, art, and chaos that makes Shangri-La such a unique aspect of Glastonbury. After experiencing the excitement for myself, I understand why Shangri-La in particular was chosen for virtual immortalization. The outlandishness of the real-world event translates perfectly into VR, allowing creators and players alike to take that absurdity even further with custom avatars and digital effects impossible to replicate in real-life. Whereas other VR live performance platforms such as Wave focus more on high-quality short-form entertainment, Lost Horizon offers a raw, realistic alternative dedicated to recreating the authentic festival experience.
It wasn’t perfect mind you. At certain points the in-headset lag made the experience unplayable, forcing me to switch to desktop mode. Still, when it did work it worked incredibly well. This could have also been due to a connection issue on my end, as there were other players in VR who claimed to have experienced zero issues so far.
This past March, Sansar’s original developer Linden Labs sold the platform to Wookey Project Corp after deciding to refocus their efforts on Second Life. Though Wookey Project Corp. stated that there would be no interruptions to the experience during the transition, many were left wondering exactly what the future held for the ambitious social VR platform. Based on Lost Horizon, it’s clear the company is still heavily committed to the idea of large-scale virtual events. Personally, I can’t wait to see what they bring to the table next. Virtual Coachella? Digital Burning Man?
Image Credit: Wookey Project Corp.