Harmonix reckons it’s time for the music visualizer to go about a big change. That’s probably about right. For an electronic art that’s almost as old as videogames it’s a wonder how it’s managed to remain so close to its roots in abstract shape-making. Did you know that the first commercial electronic music visualizer was created by the same guy who developed the home version of Pong, way back in 1976? The two mediums have always been intertwined. And so, as videogames make what seems to be a firm leap into virtual reality, Harmonix wants to bring music visualization into this new dimension too.
Harmonix Music VR is the project focused on this transformation. It’s to be what the game’s creative lead Jon Carter once dubbed during a presentation a music “spatializer.” The term makes a lot of sense. When you put a virtual reality headset on you are inside a 3D space. And not one squeezed out onto a flat screen. It’s a space that puts you at its center and that you look around using your own neck muscles. It’s more than the 2D imagery we might associate with the term “visualizer.” And so a virtual reality equivalent of a music video generator does more: it creates a world around you, dressing 3D space according to its sonic instructor.
To achieve an effect that lives up to Harmonix’s ambition the studio developed a new-fangled “song analysis voodoo.” Leaving the technical details aside, Harmonix is working in tandem with its algorithms to gain complete control over your surroundings, syncing them in a variety of ways to create a musical wonderscape. Carter explains that while Harmonix Music VR still uses real-time data as most visualizers before it, the technology “can also look at the entire song, break it into sections, identify specific drum hits, and even categorize the feel of song sections to drive the visual and environmental transformations.”
The results of this have, so far, not been shown off much due to it still being in development. But what Harmonix posits is that rather than zoning out to the sight of a psychedelic patchwork of vector art and dancing shapes, Harmonix Music VR will carve out beaches for you to relax on and command weather patterns that align with the melody of a song—a strange, computed pathetic fallacy. On top of this, the idea is that you’ll be able to tweak the worlds in their intensity—ranging from tranquil to energetic—according to the experience you want with your music.
But this isn’t enough for Harmonix. After all, this is the studio behind music visualizer games such as Frequency and Amplitude, which were active experiences involving timed button presses—a core concept the team later turned into Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The passiveness of merely admiring a world generated by your own music doesn’t sit well.
“I mean, when was the last time you sat down and just listened to a record?,” Carter asks. It’s his way of illustrating the peculiarity of sitting still while listening to music, just as you do in Harmonix Music VR. He says, perhaps quite rightly, that people these days tend to use music as an “activity enhancer.” And so this line of thinking goes that there should be more to Harmonix Music VR than sitting and looking. The answer was to invert music’s typical position as an “enhancer” by adding optional interactive elements that are intended to compliment the music.
While you’re inside one of the virtual worlds there will be objects that trigger experiential shifts in the environment if you engage with them. This isn’t quite the dexterity test of Harmonix’s previous videogames but it’s a child of them; an extra touch that enables you to gain further authorship of the music spatializer experience. Whether Harmonix manages to pull off its virtual dream is unknown for now but all the promise appears to be there, dancing away.