If you haven’t done VR yet, you can’t know how immersive it is. It’s like trying to imagine the vastness of a mountain range from a photograph, or picturing a beautiful day on the beach by reading an article about it. ‘Vicarious VR experience’ is an oxymoron – it’s impossible to truly appreciate it, to truly comprehend it, without actually trying it yourself.
But if you’ve tried it, you know there’s nothing like it. From the janky but dizzying simplicity of Richie’s Plank Experience; to the wildly imaginative and technically breath-taking Cirque Du Soleil show; to the artistic archaeological escape rooms of The Room VR: A Dark Matter… It’s only a matter of time before VR becomes the dominant form of entertainment.
Granted, there will still be a place for movies and TV. Simply trying to adapt a movie or TV show to VR is inherently problematic. Take Invisible for example – a nauseating, vertigo-inducing attempt to try and make a VR miniseries (if you could even call it that…). Interacting with the characters is next to impossible, because their reactions are already filmed. So unless you’re actively solving puzzles, or otherwise interacting with the world, you’re just watching a movie in 3D while people clumsily talk at you, past you, and without your input.
Movie studios will doubtless try to turn their licensed properties into ‘immersive narratives’, but it’ll be like trying to adapt a book into a Lego set. Technically, it’s possible to make VR ‘movies’, but the medium is far better suited for games and inherently interactive experiences – and the sooner Hollywood recognizes that, the better.
I’d also caution against trying to draw parallels between the history of VR and the history of cinema. Cinema shares more parallels with the internet (still not a great analogy, but a workable one). But VR, for now at least, is more comparable to dance halls in the 1920s – thanks entirely to what is arguably the flagship game of the virtual world: Beat Saber.
If you don’t know, Beat Saber is a rhythm game where you hit floating blocks in sync with music – like Dance Dance Revolution, but with light-sabers instead of your feet. And in the same way that there’s a sizable base of people who use their Peacock subscriptions to exclusively watch The Office, there’s a sizable base of people who use their Oculus headsets to exclusively play Beat Saber.
The game has been expanding at a steady pace for almost five years now, becoming more mainstream, more refined, more controlled (courtesy of Meta taking over the development company), but ultimately more impressive. I’m referring to the officially licensed version – there’s a whole ‘unofficial’ side to the game, with custom levels and environments, but I’m not adventurous enough to sideload it just yet.
Thankfully, within the official game, each new music pack has continued to push the boundaries, both technically and artistically – whether it’s the animated characters in the BTS pack, the pulsating electric towers and high-tech lorgnette in the Lady Gaga pack, or the introduction of light-arcs that connect multiple blocks.
However… Even with all the advancements, I can safely say that the newest music pack, by The Weeknd, is a historic step forward. It’s a pulsating, noir-infused, art-deco, geometric-neon-minimalist city-scape that will go down as one of the milestones in the early evolution of Beat Saber, if not VR as a whole.
Blinding Lights has an opening light show that gives me chills every time; I Feel it Coming is like watching a high-tech water display; The Hills builds to an unexpectedly adrenaline-fueled finale (even if it is somewhat diffused by all the censored lyrics). And as with the other Beat Saber music packs, since you’re actually ‘dancing’ with the songs, there’s an added rush from the endorphins being released.
But what makes it especially ground-breaking is that, thanks to the variety of light displays and background ‘set pieces’, each song feels like it’s in an entirely different setting. The previous packs each took place in their own unique arenas, but with minimal changes between songs. In contrast, The Weeknd pack feels like a collection of ten original, albeit stylistically similar 360-degree music videos. It’s only a matter of time before the music packs become true ‘albums’, with even more discrete song-scapes that gel as a cohesive narrative when played from start to finish.
Beat Saber, in short, is both redefining how music is consumed in the 21st century, and is the ultimate embodiment of our era of techadence – which is essentially an upgraded version of the roaring 20s. We’ve even brought back the extreme political and social instability of the 1920s – what better motivation to escape the real world in favor of the virtual one? And while I’m not thrilled that Meta is the sole proprietor of the digital dance halls at the moment, for the price of your personal data, you can gain admission to history.