Music in the Twilight Zone
On March 25th, 2014 Facebook made news again. Following the nineteen billion dollar purchase of high tech startup WhatsApp in February, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced it was buying virtual reality pioneer Oculus VR and its product The Rift for two billion dollars. The price tag implied Facebook valued virtual reality technology way above what analysts did and put the wind in a new gaming paradigm that, with the support of Facebook, could transform entertainment. In particular, Zuckerberg and the Oculus team share the belief that the typical user experience of the future will be at once more immersive and total. Advances in gaming technology, in short, could have far reaching consequences on music listening.
Virtual reality technology has been around since 1993 when Sega debuted its VR headset prototypes in Popular Science magazine1. The technology, though, was underpowered, had latency issues, and caused motion sickness, headaches, and even nausea in many of the beta testers. The Sega project was shelved and, in the meantime, graphics and motion sensor technology advanced. The Rifts’s screen is key to its success and is made anew from an Organic Light Emitting Diode display. It has exceptional resolution and intelligent ergonomic design without blurring the picture when the user rotates his head by as much as 100 degrees.
When Facebook announced its high dollar purchase of Oculus, consumers and investors alike were aghast at the price. Shares of Facebook slid nearly ten percent on the announcement2. Yet this was a long-term strategic purchase, not unlike Google’s acquisition of Android in 2005. The search engine bought the little known firm for the bargain price of $50 million. Smart phones were just starting to penetrate the market. Now Android is in eight of ten smart phones worldwide. The Android example is also an illustration of what a small firm with a dedicated team of talented people can do when they have the resources and expertise of a large, successful company. By leveraging Facebook’s deep pockets, programing talent, and connections Oculus has the potential to move beyond the gaming market it currently is focusing on.
Music Industry Applications
The Rift has the potential to make a lasting impact on the music industry. Visuals, of course, are becoming increasingly tied to music and the industry, both in the recorded and live music sectors. Artists like Dr. Dre have received overwhelming acclaim for incorporating holograms into live performances, and Beyoncé’s recent video album has also helped move recorded music sales.
The Rift has already been hailed as a product that can give more immediacy to shows. This could be especially useful to concert or festivalgoers who often are forced to rely on large TV monitors to see what is happening on the stage. Audience members could experience being in the first row or on stage with the artist, as shown by developer Chris Milk when he created a 360-degree audiovisual experience to simulate a concert with Beck.
This same idea can also be applied to streaming live concerts. By streaming the performance directly to the Rift, or by partnering with YouTube, the Rift could add extra layers to the performance and deliver it at the viewer’s living room. This could be a new source of revenue for artists, particularly when a venue is sold out. It would also help artists reach the largest potential possible audience and put pressure on the secondary ticketing market ticketing, as Rift’s ticket price would compete with the cheapest seats.
The Oculus technology can also be used to add supplementary content to traditional recorded music. This could include interactive music videos or, on a larger scale, adding an interactive or story telling element to concept albums. It would increase fan engagement and provide more outlets for artistic creativity.
The Oculus Rift is the first viable attempt to integrate virtual reality into our everyday lives. From dating, to sports, to games and to music, the potential for virtual reality to add to real life experiences is great. By providing artists with new ways to engage fans and create alternative streams of revenue the Rift might transform the way music is consumed—just as YouTube did in 2006. Mark Zuckerberg’s two billion dollar gamble could pay off.
By John Lahr
1. Antonoff, Michael. “Will Facebook-Oculus Purchase Advance Virtual Reality.” USA Today. Gannett, 10 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
2. Reeves, Jeff. “Why Facebook Was Smart to Buy Oculus.” MarketWatch. N.p., 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.