Is virtual reality the future of DJing?
With every technological advancement there is both anticipation and fear as to how change will impact one’s life and work. This has always been especially prevalent with the DJ community.
The introduction of digital formats, streaming, and stems has led to apprehension by many but overall acceptance in the long run. At the end of the day, DJing rarely subverts from its basic principles: to mix one or more tracks together in a conscientious flow of rhythms and sounds.
With the introduction of virtual reality technology, we are witnessing the next era of DJ technology, one that exists in a new, interactive online world. But what impact will VR DJing really have, and how it will affect the way in which we interact with DJ culture? DJTT spoke to the proponents of three companies in the field to get more overarching view of if this is something that all DJs should take seriously.
The rise in popularity of virtual reality DJing applications and software coincides with the ever-increasing availability of headsets. As the market for headsets becomes more competitive, virtual reality technology becomes more affordable.
First, it’s important to distinguish between between the immersive technology (XR) options that are available: virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR)
- Virtual reality is similar to what you might have seen in The Lawnmower Man. By donning a headset and using touch controllers, you can access a virtual world of DJing. With some headsets starting off at only $350, the marketplace is full of leading brands including products by Sony, Samsung, Google, and Oculus (as acquired by Facebook back in 2014), with news of a forthcoming product being made by Apple.
- Augmented reality recently made headlines with the success of Pokémon Go. It offers a digital world overlaid onto the physical one, and ‘provides as much freedom as you are given within your normal life’. Primarily popular in the smartphone market, there are also headsets available, which range from various smart glasses (of course we all remember when Google tried to launch their own version), with applications ranging from sports to gaming.
- Mixed reality is an extension of the previous categories, allowing users to combine virtual and digital objects to create new environments. It’s very much in the developmental stage, with headsets costing a great deal more than its VR and AR counterpoints. Magic Leap seem to be offering the most exciting product at the moment, but with initial costs at around $2,300, there is still a way to go before this technology becomes accessible to all.
At the moment there are three main DJ applications for VR headsets; Reality Decks, Tribe XR, and Vinyl Reality. Although each has their own individual style, they all provide a similar function; allowing the user to DJ their own music in a virtual space, with options to stream, share, and interact with other users in an online environment. The main points that differentiate them are what virtual equipment you perform on, and what physical headsets they can be used with.
Tom Impallomeni is co-founder of Tribe XR, which launched on Oculus Quest September of last year to great reviews. It focuses on helping aspiring DJs become performers, and ultimately creating a new roster of talent.
“Right now, if you want to become a professional DJ you have to buy hardware, or you have to go and get apps, or go to DJ school,” says Impallomeni. “We recognize that by using VR you can train people on virtualized versions of real equipment. You’re getting access to virtualized versions of equipment worth around $6,000 — CDJ equivalents — for just $20, plus a headset, and headsets are so cheap now.”
Within the Tribe XR world, you interact with club standard CDJ and mixer technology, featuring a lot of the modern functions and effects that come with your high-end club mixers and decks. Import your own tracks, play with friends, stream on Twitch, or link up to Discord – a highly popular platform for the gaming community.
“Our users can actually stream from Tribe XR, for example with Oculus Quest, directly to Facebook and on PSVR [PlayStation Virtual Reality], or with third party streaming software to places like Twitch and YouTube. We get a lot of DJs in training who are using these streaming platforms to start building up their skills.” Through this, Tribe XR have established a large online community where DJs share tips, share music, and perform. It also has a multiplayer feature that allows people to take live sessions from real teachers, ang go back-to-back with friends anywhere in the world.
At just $20, Tribe XR is a great entry level product, and has won support from the likes of The Verge’s Dani Deahl, and Defected. It also has a growing amount of success stories, where users have gone onto to earn through real gigs, and return to teach Tribe’s growing talent pool. “Our goal is to grow the market, improve the quality of professional DJs and make the world more creative,” says Impallomeni. “We’re not trying to make a toy for people to play with, we’re trying to enable people to excel.”
Based out of Berlin, Vinyl Reality is one for the purists. Replete with virtual turntables, it allows you to upload tracks and browse through your digital crate, nudge your records, and mix like a pro. “Most people are surprised by how realistic it feels, and that everything works,” founder and developer Tycho Terryn explains. Terryn left his job a couple of years ago to explore the world of virtual reality software more, and ended up reverting back to his primary passion – DJing.
“For me, I run this more as a passion project, rather than a business. It was made as more of an app with features that I wanted to have – I always wanted to stay true to the vinyl aspect.”
With Vinyl Reality, you can not only stream your mixes, but you can also record and share in your own custom environments — as created in Unity — such as your favorite club, or outdoor setting.
And last but not least, there is Reality Decks, based out of the UK. Founded and developed by DJ, producer and software engineer Philip Mackenzie, the app is more customized than its two counterparts. The virtual DJ equipment in the app was designed inherently for the virtual world.
“I was looking to build a tool that was useful for me as a DJ,” Mackenzie explains. “A lot of people were treating this technology as an experience, but I wanted to use it to make a tune or a mix.”
Along with customizing the in-app technology, Mackenzie spent a lot of time building the playlist functionality, and “and all the nitty gritty that you need”. Along with being by featured by Oculus after launch, Mackenzie talks about all the mixes he receives from DJs who are using the app. “Quite often now I can’t tell if they’ve been recorded with the app or not.”
What does the future entail?
One question DJTT posed to all the firms was as to whether or not they foresaw a future in which virtual reality DJing could become a substitute for the experience we have now. A long shot maybe, but would it be ever transpire that within our lifetime we would see someone in the booth with just a headset and some hand controllers?
Impallomeni emphasizes that DJs should not be fearful of new technologies. Tribe XR’s goal is to complement, and augment what is currently available. Their technology already allows you to perform in virtual environments and play in real life scenarios. It seems that this future is already here.
Terryn at Vinyl Reality is also open about the possibility of VR and AR technology replacing existing DJ equipment in the long term. “I think VR has a huge potential,” he states, “[but] for more professional use with clubs and festivals I think you need that connection with the crowd and audience. When you have a headset strapped to your face you have a barrier there, so I don’t think that would really work.” The answer could lie with AR headsets, something that Mackenzie talks about as well.
“For the same reason I can’t see someone DJing from a phone — even though you can — I can’t see someone putting on a headset in a club,” explains Mackenzie. “One possibility is that you have a DJ with a headset, and then take the output and put it on a screen, so that the audience can see what the DJ is seeing. But what that adds to the punters experience, I’m not sure. I think with augmented reality however you can engage with the crowd.”
Terryn is currently building new technology to progress and supercede what he’s already created, so that users could then tailor build their own DJ studio, using their own components. “My vision is where you can make your own setup and take that to where you need to perform and connect through your own AR glasses, and use your own setup in the club.”
Performing with AR glasses in a live setting makes a lot more sense. You could interact with the audience, along with your own digital devices. And as Mackenzie suggested, you could connect the output to a monitor so that the crowd could see what you’re doing in the virtual environment, pleasing both the purists (did I hear someone say tracklist?) and futurists at the same time. But, as previously stated, the technology just isn’t quite there yet.
The Virtual Club
If there is something that does seem more inevitable than anything else, is that the virtual club will be a thing. “The virtual venue feels inevitable. It does feel right to say, that if you’re alone in the middle of nowhere in this tiny shack up a mountain, then you will want to participate in a huge club event,” states Mackenzie. “That feels like something there are signs of happening.”
At Reality Decks, the technology is also taking a similar approach to Vinyl Reality, in which Mackenzie is taking time to customize features and build built-in applications to further customize the experience. “I’m taking a bit of a step back from the DJ app and focussing my business on making music production tools, with a view of putting them back into VR,” he tells us. “In terms of the way things are going, you really have to look at augmented reality as well. You can overlay decks in front of you, and be able to see people around you. Virtual reality will be good for you to prepare for your DJ sets, but on the practical side, to be able to overlay something in your vision is a really exciting area.”
It’s not like we haven’t seen virtual clubbing before though. Boiler Room toyed around with the idea in 2017, and clubbing environments do currently exists in VR games. At the moment, little has come close to creating something with the same atmosphere and connectivity that you would get from the real thing. What’s really missing is a level of authenticity and someone to take the risk to really create this environment.
Perhaps the Wave VR, above, comes close with their virtual performance environments that incorporate interactive visuals, and heightened in-crowd interactivity (for instance, shared “trips” between audience members). Virtual reality concerts are quickly becoming a thing, so surely a virtual nightclub experience can’t be far off?
So what next?
One of the main problems right now is that virtual reality technology is specifically built for PC users, which is why it hasn’t quite integrated into the Mac-loving DJ scene. This however will soon change.
“If you assume by 2025 a quarter of the developed world is going to have access to VR, you’re going to have a pretty sizeable audience – we’re talking 25 million amateurs and one and a half million pros owning VR and AR,” says Tribe XR’s Impallomeni. His company are predicting huge adoption rates as Oculus gear becomes more commonplace and DJs opt more for the simplicity of VR to perform. And what about the audience? With great accessibility to headsets, how many of us will be accessing mixes, shows, and other features through VR?
With greater accessibility to headset technology, more likely than not these DJing apps will go on to replace the mobile, iOS market at some point in the future. Whether providing you with a more realistic way to prepare your sets, mix, or to provide a tangible-like solution to performing in the virtual or real world, VR DJing is here to stay.
“I envisage a world, where you would have an application for one particular purpose, and several kinds of platforms where you exist, and bring things in,” explains Mackenzie. “In an ideal scenario, you would build your own DJ or music studio for your own particular purpose, and sell virtual equipment to people. I think that’s where this needs to go, where we move from having all the hardware in the studio to having all these things online.” He’s not alone in his thinking either.
And who knows, maybe the next step we will see will be in the virtual reality synth market? One step at a time.