Virtual reality may have blown up in tech circles, but mainstream pop culture has mostly kept itself at arm’s length from the movement. In fact, if you’ve seen a famous celebrity in VR, that almost always means you’ve seen him or her in a 360-degree video – the kind that uses fixed video footage and therefore traps viewers in one place rather than into fully explorable virtual worlds.
Outside musicians like Reggie Watts and Bjork have starred in 360-degree music and video experiments, while more mainstream artists like Jack White have published concert footage shot with a pair of 360-degree cameras. But if you’re looking for a big musician who’s launched something similar to a fully VR experience, surprisingly, you only have one option: Deadmau5, which launched a Google Cardboard-compatible VR app on iOS and Android this week.
The electronic music titan, aka Joel Zimmerman, lent his likeness, music, and input to Absolut Vodka to create a VR app. A skeptic might think this means a simple cash-in, but in an exclusive interview with Ars, Deadmau5 admitted that he was quite involved in its creation, as he has serious VR dreams.
“I’m not going to say that the experience we’ve done with Absolut is a bunch of shit – it’s running great,” Deadmau5 told Ars. “But it pales in comparison to two GTX 1080s in a box. It’s great for what it is, it’s super accessible. Look, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to get people excited.’ All of these companies are rushing to get content for VR.”
At that point, Deadmau5 initiated a Skype screen sharing session. As it turns out, he’s building his own VR content.
“Don’t Fuck With My Shit”
“Are you at your computer?” Deadmau5 said as he opened a copy of the Unreal Engine 4.1 game-building engine on his home computer. “Don’t mess with my shit.”
This means the 35-year-old Toronto resident didn’t want me to capture screens or video of what he was about to show me. While waiting for an endless load time, Deadmau5 explained that he caught the VR bug a little over a year ago after buying an Oculus Rift DK2, which impressed him enough after seeing content from other developers who worked on it. He almost immediately wanted to load his own 3D content into a VR environment, which fans might assume was the visualizations and projections seen during his light-filled concerts.
“I’m knee-deep in fucking Houdini FX and Nuke,” Deadmau5 said, explaining that he was also developing the content that will be projected onto a giant cube (with a tantalizing pixel resolution of 9mm, he says with audible drooling forms) for his next tour. “I’m not going to a VFX guy and say, ‘Hey man, I need some cool visuals for my show, join me, kay-bye!'” (Scroll the musician’s busy Instagram feed to see examples .)
But that’s not what Deadmau5 was excited about when he first loaded a DK2. Instead, he thought back to a 2013 vision he had of a massive, nationwide tour, a vision he admits masterminded when he was “pretty popular.”
“It would be cool for us to do a 360-degree arena tour,” said Deadmau5. “Not U2, damn it, but something centralized, a solo ticket show where we could really throw everything at it in terms of technology, staging, and all this. We created a damn monster. We would have used inordinate amounts of robots on the factory floor, though this shit.”
However, once the concept phase was complete, Deadmau5 and his team had come up with something worth $8 million dollars just for the first concert. “The price tag made my hard-on go away very quickly,” he admits. But fast-forward a few years, and Deadmau5 was sitting at his computer with a bunch of set-design computer files and a shiny, new VR headset.
“I’m going to start taking these FBX files, go to Maya, lower the poly a bit and throw it into Unreal,” Deadmau5 said. “I was like, holy shit. I’m standing in front of my own goddamn podium that I could never make it. That freaked me out.”
Mouse heads are everywhere in VR
The loading time had passed and Deadmau5’s Unreal Engine 4.1 screen was now streaming. I couldn’t help it: “Holy shit,” I blurted out, clearly liberated by Zimmerman’s proclivity for swearing (and at the same time angry that I wasn’t allowed to record any of this).
I was blown away by the round-stage setup that Deadmau5 and his team built a few years ago. Eight giant Deadmau5 mouse heads hung around a massive stage, all pointing to the center as if they were equal parts light rigs and all-seeing eyes. The stage was also surrounded by a number of wheel-driven robots, each with different lights and protruding poles, though these were not animated. In the center of the scene was a single man wearing a Deadmau5 helmet, clearly holding court in a circular DJ setup with his own array of normal and mouse-shaped lights.
Above Deadmau5’s VR head was a curious mishmash of robotic-looking structures and some kind of human form wrinkled between the gears. All in all, there was a lot to experience in the man’s dream concert hall. If our conversation had lasted longer, I might have asked about every detail of the set, but that would have taken a while.
Instead, Deadmau5 spent time emphasizing its belief that 360-degree video just isn’t enough.
“[Virtual reality] offers a better experience because it also offers interactivity,” said Deadmau5. “That’s not something you can get out of a 360-degree video, where you’re on a linear timeline. Even if the camera moves, you’re fixed. You’re in a movie. While in the land of the game engine you have an environment to explore on your own.”
Deadmau5 was careful to say that he once had a fully interactive music experience that allows players to pause or remix his music. However, when asked what he’d like to launch in VR, Deadmau5 didn’t mince words: “You don’t have to be a goddamn genius to come up with something.” Then he rattled a number of ideas on the table at lightning speed. Some of the ideas revolved around semi-interactive games (“not fucking go and get 20 fucking 360 no-scopes”), such as a simple 8-step sequencer that allows playing in virtual space. Then he spoke at length about a particular idea.
“Virtual reality offers a better experience because it also offers interactivity.”
“There’s so much room for modularity in creating replay value for a concert, right? What you’d do is build this thing, make it semi-modular for you, where you can upload new content to the same scene. Basically, the end user would download a client, like a video game, right? This 4GB damn thing, it can be packed with all the geometry, all the animation data, all the damn mo-cap, everything. Then you offer DLC.” Deadmau5 laughed loudly, animated by the thought. “You know? Extra scenes, extra music. It’s fucking genius.”
Does this mean we should expect Deadmau5’s VR strike in the near future, either with this crazy VR stage or some sort of VR distribution system? Or maybe there will be a combination? Deadmau5 is concerned, saying triple-A game and technology companies have been reluctant to invest in things that would only work for the very small percentage of people who own an HTC Vive or an Oculus Rift. Still, he expresses confidence in more accessible VR platforms such as Cardboard. “[The Absolut app] was getting my feet wet in VR, of course on a small scale. It’s low poly models, it’s not a triple-A game engine, it doesn’t run at 144 Hz. But it’s a good starting point for me to get familiar with VR development and where we can use it. The Vive man bursts into laughter [using the Absolut app]. But the Vive man is currently one in 10,000.”
And Cardboard’s capabilities – and of smartphones displaying fully 3D content, as opposed to pre-recorded 360-degree video – are enough to shake hands with Deadmau5 a little bit. “Okay tell me [your readers] to keep their eyes open,” said Deadmau5. “I’m known to have talked to a few programmers, a few tech companies, a few software developers, and a few game companies.”
List image by Deadmau5 / Absolut