The VR show must go on

Last month, about 300 fans of the electronic artist Ash Koosha gathered together at 10 o’clock on a West Coast Wednesday night to watch the musician perform a set of his critically acclaimed music

While another 31,000 people followed the hour-long performance on a Facebook live stream, Koosha spun a set with accompanying visuals designed by Hirad Sab and art direction from Strangeloop — in a virtual venue created by TheWaveVR.

The show never existed outside of the SteamVR and Facebook servers that were rendering hundreds of frames per second to distribute Koosha’s performance to the users who’d strapped on their Oculus or Vive headsets or tuned in to the live stream to see it.

Instead of the bunker-like interior of a typical club, replete with flaring (seizure-inducing) strobe lights, sweaty grinding bodies and e’s and whizz, viewers were treated to animated lights, dancing animated avatars and the virtual, shareable drugs that are part and parcel of TheWaveVR’s shows.

Koosha’s show was the fourth flagship performance to debut on TheWaveVR platform, but perhaps the first that fulfills the promise that virtual reality holds for the futurists who believe in it.

Born Ashkan Kooshanejad, TheWaveVR’s August act had fled Tehran for London and has been living as a refugee ever since playing a role in director Bahman Ghobadi’s highly lauded film, No One Knows About Persian Cats. He feared for his safety once the authorities began arresting and beating participants in the film nearly a decade ago.

The Iranian-born musician, who was granted asylum in the U.K., has been forced to perform on platforms like TheWaveVR for U.S. audiences ever since the U.S. government imposed its travel ban on Iranians in the early days of President Donald J. Trump’s administration.

Ash Koosha/ Photo by Ozge Cone

When the travel ban was first announced, Koosha released the following statement:

All of my ambitions, contributions and efforts were reduced to bureaucratic paperwork that left me feeling betrayed and burdened because of my ‘place of birth’.

No one chooses to be exiled and no one chooses to be born in one place or another and it is in no one’s interest to ban global progress, something that many people from different nationalities are contributing to daily and they are doing it all for the future of humanity. The global progress, unfortunately is being threatened by executive orders of Donald Trump in an unjust entry ban on refugees. A ban that also affects scholars, students, family members, artists and the mere tourists with no intention of settling in the USA.

It’s the ability of virtual reality to transcend borders that makes it such a powerful tool — and one that can’t easily be dismissed by the current limitations of its hardware specifications.

While that may sound far too optimistic coming from a journalist, there’s still truth to the idea of virtual reality as an empathy engine… despite the limitations of the technology and its applications.

Virtual reality has an opportunity to provide a safe space where artists and their fans can congregate freely in a completely immersive environment. It’s a way to transcend borders and, fleetingly, coexist beyond the restrictions of physical space.

That may seem fanciful, but it’s a premise with an overabundance of promise and not something that should be dismissed out of hand — despite flagging sales and slow consumer adoption.

“There are no borders inside VR,” said TheWaveVR co-founder Aaron Lemke in a statement. “We’ve been working hard to develop a community that’s both positive and inclusive, where all are welcome. Soon artists will be able to use our platform to reach all their fans at once, and these physical, man-made boundaries won’t have so much power.”

TheWaveVR, which is available through Steam Early Access, is one example of the virtual reality bet that continues to attract backers despite the industry’s (well-reported) challenges. 

Here at TechCrunch there was an internal thread that my colleague (the esteemed and inestimable Natasha Lomas) wrote about in her epitaph for the virtual reality industry that goes something like this: “AR>Weed>VR.”

Even if that’s the case, then virtual reality still holds the promise as something that can be an incredibly big market.

Earlier this year, one estimate put the virtual reality market at somewhere around $25 billion, compared to roughly $80 billion for augmented reality. If that’s the case, it’s an indication that the report of virtual reality’s death is likely an exaggeration.

The statistic shows three growth scenarios for global economic impact of augmented and virtual reality from 2016 to 2020. In the high-adoption scenario, the economic impact of VR/AR is forecast to amount to 29.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2020. (Courtesy Statista)

“It’s easy to get caught up in hype cycles around emerging technologies, but we’ve been 100% focused on building engaging VR experiences, knowing that adoption of this technology is steadily growing, and inevitable over the next few years,” TheWaveVR’s co-founder Adam Arrigo (a friend from the Los Angeles startup scene), wrote in an email. “The timeline has gone almost exactly as developers have expected, with 2016 being the peak state of inflated expectations, and this year (and most likely part of next year) being the ‘trough of disillusionment.’ ”

For Arrigo’s own company, and others, like Against Gravity, Squanchtendo, MindshowHere Be Dragons and The Virtual Reality Company, the focus isn’t on the distribution.

“While we wait for the price point to fall, for mobile and standalone headsets to get inside out tracking and 6d of input, and the general UX to improve, developers like us and other companies like Against Gravity, Squanchtendo and Mindshow are tackling the biggest challenge: learning to design for the medium,” Arrigo wrote.

Meanwhile, the funding continues to come in for VR companies that are attempting to find new distribution models for the technology, and existing players like Oculus are doing more to shore up support for the medium.

“There’s a lot of friction right now — the hardware is awkward and hard to set up. Users are only going to engage with products that deliver a super high value proposition — and most importantly, let them have experiences they can’t have in reality,” according to Arrigo.

Venture investors believe in the vision Arrigo and Lemke have outlined, backing the company with roughly $4 million in financing since 2016.

Now, the company is looking to expand its platform beyond live shows to virtual record releases, opening up another distribution channel for musicians looking for more ways to connect with audiences.

Alongside the producer TOKiMONSTA, TheWaveVR will release a virtual reality experience timed to coincide with the release of the artist’s latest record, Lune Rouge. 

It’s the first record since her recovery from a rare brain disease that forced her to relearn how to write music. “Being able to play Coachella three months after having the surgery was very significant to me,” she recently told Pitchfork. “If I can do something like this, anyone can.

The release is yet another example of how virtual reality developers are looking to amplify, rather than recreate, experiences, Arrigo said.

“It’s easy to look at the raw numbers and draw the conclusion that ‘VR is dead,’ but you’d get a different story if you spoke to the users who come back week over week to our Wave shows,” said Arrigo. “Our power users are spending up to 10 hours per session actually raving/socializing all night. Users are self-organizing their own Wave meetups. And we’re seeing overwhelming creative excitement from musicians and artists, once they see what’s possible in the medium.”