Exciting times at the intersection of VR, music, and visual effects

As a passionate, long-time believer in the potential of reality and someone who worked on VRML at Silicon Graphics in the ’90s, I was really excited to get to dive back into the of interactive 3D graphics these past two years at my own virtual reality startup, Ethereal. As hoped, it offered some of the most gratifying (and challenging) product-building experiences of my life, and confirmed in a visceral way many long-felt intuitions about the huge potential at the intersection of virtual reality, music, and visual effects.

A music-reactive, psychedelic forest, with interactive trees, one of the destinations awaiting in 

Unfortunately, Ethereal was not nearly as satisfying of a company-building experience. Despite countless meetings with (and ever-better demos to) potential investors and partners, we exhausted our modest friends-and-family without having secured a proper Seed Round. Sadly, in the latter half of 207, Ethereal experienced a slow, fatal tumble into virtual reality’s deepening trough of disillusionment.

That said, my core teammates (Rikk Carey, Long Ngo, and Adrian Ludley) and I are really proud of what we built and are keen for it to not be lost to history; hence this post to share with the world what we were building and why…

The vision

A significant inspiration for Ethereal was the multi-billion dollar market for Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festivals. These quick-to-sellout, multi-day events are an existence proof that people are more than a little eager to spend their money (and time) to connect with music and friends in a more visceral way, with a boost from mind-blowing stagecraft and light shows.

Our idea was to leverage VR to deliver 10x better immersive/social music experiences via interactive, music-reactive visual effects, unbound by the limits of the physical world.

To be clear, we didn’t want to enter the music business; we integrated SoundCloud for the streaming. And we didn’t want to be a content company; we built Ethereal with the intent to become a -generated-content (UGC) technology platform, with us handling the heavy lifting (multi-user sessions, streaming music integration, publishing to app with large audience, discovery, viral features, and so on).

Our goal was to empower any 3D artist to create an Ethereal Destination, wire it for interactivity and real-time-music-reactivity via our free Maker kit, and publish it to our app — all without having to write a single line of code.

And that is exactly what we built.

Demoing Ethereal with the immersion turned up to 11 via a SUBPAC wearable subwoofer

The experience in words and images

How it works: You jack in and arrive in your Ethereal living room, with your personal teleporter front and center:

Your Ethereal living room, with teleporter and holoscreen

Before heading out for the night, you use the Holoscreen floating in front of you to make sure you have the avatar and wand you want and to choose where to go.

Then BAM!

Your atoms are turned into bits and hurled across the Metaverse. You arrive with up to three fellow travelers, and the EDM starts playing.

Your wand can be used to cast “Spells” (real-time music-reactive VFX) or to trigger various interactive elements around you. Much of the fun is using your wand to create (or co-create) a mind-blowing light show or to sculpt temporary, music-reactive light sculptures. You can also move about laterally or vertically to explore the space. (If you fire a Spell straight down, you’ll jetpack straight up, then float gently down. One of my favorite things to do is to create a light sculpture while floating down, then to jetpack up through it. Then repeat.)

Here’s a peek at some of the destinations we built:

Multi-user session playing the visual effects synthesizer in “ChillZ”
Casting Spells on a crater blasted off Earth’s Moon by hostile aliens in “Neo”
Interactive laser show in an active volcano in “Bass Eruptions”
And, yes, a way to play on the playa (without the dust!) in “Black Rock Desert”

A taste of Ethereal via video

Virtual reality experiences are essentially impossible to share in a satisfying way via other media, and to be fully understood must actually be experienced in virtual reality, with presence and agency. Nonetheless, here are a few attempts to capture via video some of the magic of Ethereal:

Co-creating a music-reactive light show in Black Rock Desert
Not even evil space aliens can stop the music and music-reactive VFX
Who knew partying inside an active volcano could be so fun?
Some output from the VFX synthesizer in ChillZ

Bonus for Daydreamers: access to the app

Our plan was to launch first on Google Daydream, and then port to any other high-traction platform with at least one hand controller. We made that decision during the 2016 Google I/O at which Daydream was announced, excited by its unique-at-the-time combination of untethered experience and hand controller.

So, if you’re someone who owns a Daydream smartphone and headset, you’re among the lucky subset of readers who could benefit from access to the latest pre-release build of Ethereal. If you’d like to check it, just email me (john at getethereal.com) with “Special Access” in the subject. I’ll send you a download link and instructions.

Ethereal’s awesome “E” app icon

In conclusion

So, that’s what I and my teammates have been up to in VR. So much to be proud of! We clearly demonstrated that virtual reality is able to deliver immersive/social music experiences that are truly mind-blowing. And we’re confident now that as the hardware improves and gets more widely adopted, there will be a huge market opportunity to deliver on the vision we were pursuing.

In addition, we also got a taste of the value of virtual reality for collaboration. Since we were “pre-office,” our most frequent meeting place was in VR via our own app. Each night we’d jack in to Ethereal to test the latest build together and discuss priorities for the following day. And that was truly awesome.

(But doing that in the real world got us some well-deserved, good-natured ribbing.)

That said, I believe we made some significant strategic errors in our sequencing of features and target platforms. And on that, the buck stops with me.

In particular, while I think we were right that VR’s mainstream future will not be tethered to desktop PCs, and that Google has a great chance to leverage Android and its ecosystem to be the market leader, betting on Daydream before it had critical mass, and even worse, before it was finished, was clearly the wrong choice at the time we made it.

In short, we made the mistake of building for a probable future mass market platform, rather than proving traction on one of the then-best early-stage-market platforms (Vive or Rift).

If I had a do-over, I would have had us first nail a great solo app for desktop-tethered systems, and I would have charged for it and experimented with various models, with the hope of becoming cashflow positive as quickly as possible. (Turns out people who spend $1,500 or more on their VR rigs are quite willing to spend $10 to $20 for software that delivers unique, best-of-breed experiences.)

Not sure what’s next for me; I enter 2018 excited, energized, and open to new possibilities. But as to what’s next for Ethereal, it’s my hope that this post might inspire others to pick up the immersive/social-music-in-VR torch we dropped and carry it forward. And on the right terms, I’d be happy to give access to the Ethereal code base to avoid having to re-create all that we built.

[Streaming music companies, I’m looking at you. Please have your people call my people. And by “my people,” I mean me. But seriously, we should do this — and under the right terms, I know I could get some or all of the band back together to continue the work.]

Okay, all for now. Strapping on my SUBPAC wearable subwoofer, putting on my headset, and heading back into Ethereal. I hope to see some of you there!

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