This weekend, Indian electronic music fans will be in the unusual position of choosing between two virtual reality concerts. Artist management company UnderTheRadar will stage retroFUTURE comprising sets by its roster of Nucleya, Ritviz, and Anish Sood on Saturday, July 18.
That same evening, “immersive experiences design consultancy and production company” Transhuman Collective will stream the first day of Unrated, a two-day “cinematic music and art experience” featuring performances by DJ-producers such as Ash Roy, Calm Chor, Ox7gen and Vinayak^a, and visual and graffiti artists like Cursorama, Daku, Decoy and Naveen Desphande, that will help raise funds to provide PPE kits for medical workers.
UnderTheRadar describes retroFUTURE as a “360-degree virtual reality concert” while Transhuman Collective is calling Unrated a “real-time 3D virtual event”. Last weekend, Percept Live held Sunburn Home, which they claimed was “India’s first virtual music festival”.
The words seem to have been carefully chosen because the term virtual reality itself can be contentious. Traditionally, VR experiences require the use of devices such as Head Mounted Displays that enable the wearers to immerse themselves and interact in a simulated environment.
However, Jash Reen, the co-founder of Wolves, the audio-visual company that created the virtual arena for Sunburn, believes the term can be used loosely to cover different levels of interactivity.
“[It implies] a simulated environment,” he says. “You can experience it in different ways. [In] Sunburn Home, you were seeing the DJ perform in this venue that’s not a real environment. You’d still call it virtual reality.”
According to him, there are broadly three levels of VR that can be used for performances: – The first is a simple broadcast, like Sunburn Home, which was supposed to live-streamed and was finally uploaded as two videos that ticket buyers could view for the duration of the six-hour event. Unrated will also be broadcast but will incorporate certain live elements.
“The lights and cameras” will be operated “in real-time”, says Soham Sarcar, the co-founder of Transhuman Collective. The audience will also be able to see the number of people watching, comment and vote for the colour of lights they’d like to see on screen. While some of the sets will be pre-recorded, a few be streamed live, says Sarcar. “You won’t be able to skip ahead.”
The second level is a 360-degree video experience which can be viewed both without and with a VR headset through which you can control the placement of the camera and can look all around the environment. The third level is VR as we commonly know it, where you can move around the environment on your own.
The reason we aren’t seeing any of the last form yet is because of the average speed of internet connections in India, the requirement of certain technical specifications and the expensiveness of the devices. As such, we don’t have a market for it right now. Besides, there are limitations with even the most basic set-up. A patchy web connection can lead to glitches and skips. Many viewers had to refresh and reload Sunburn Home, leading BookMyShow, which screened the event, to send out an SMS asking attendees to change their display settings in case they were experiencing difficulties with the stream.
Sarcar says that TranSpace, the “virtual event platform” that will be used for Unrated, can also be used for a VR stream but “we’re not doing it because we don’t have the [numbers]; we’re targeting the international market for that.”
Reen believes the only way such experiences can be made available to a mass audience is if they’re made accessible via a web URL.
“Our eventual goal is to create something that’s gamified,” he says. “The user at home would log on to a link and they’d be able to be a character in this world and explore things such as checking out the music in different rooms.”
This would entail the renting of a lot of server space, which would considerably raise the cost of an already pricey enterprise.
The monies involved in developing something like Transpace, for instance, run into tens of lakhs. Sarcar said his company hopes to recover their investment by adapting the platform for different events such as brand launches and conferences.
“It’s an architecture, a skeleton,” he says. “By [changing the] design, visualisation and story, the whole thing can be transformed. At the moment, it’s a space station, tomorrow it could be an entirely different world like a fantasy island.”
While the expenses are exponentially higher, there’s also vast potential for innovative and relatively seamless brand integration.
“You can integrate e-commerce,” says Sinha.
Some of the possibilities include tying up with food delivery services so that attendees can order drinks at a virtual bar and have them delivered in real life, and giving clothing brands a room in which they can display their merchandise for viewers to browse and buy online.
Among the reasons Sunburn Home was not broadcast live is that commercials by the sponsors were interspersed within the stream. The fact that you could fast forward to any point in the videos somewhat defeated this purpose but the onboarding of brands will be crucial for promoters who are currently in the stage of experimentation and are keeping prices low because gig-goers are just about getting comfortable with the idea of paying to watch live streams.
Early bird tickets for retroFUTURE and single-day passes for Sunburn Home were both tagged at INR99. The pricing was in line with that of on-ground electronic music events, which were set at the rate of INR500 and above.
Reen feels that the ultimate aim should be to mirror an actual brick-and-mortar venue that fans visit regularly, like “a virtual antiSOCIAL.”
That’s at least some time away because “people have to get used to purchasing tickets” and “it’s going to be a while before an alcohol brand says I want to put my logo on this and you can do it every week.”
Like with on-ground events, in the absence of sponsors, who will no doubt want their digital billboards and logos to be prominently portrayed even in the virtual environments, VR concerts won’t take off in a significant way.
“If there’s no funding, it’s always going to be a one-time or a special event,” says Reen.
By replicating the ambiance and ecosystem of the real world, such gigs can provide employment to both musicians and technicians who’ve lost their livelihoods over the past few months.
“For the Sunburn show, we had a lighting designer and a guest VJ. We were able to pay them,” he adds.
* The article is written by Amit Gurbaxani