"I like extremes," Björk tells Ars. "I like things when they're really acoustic—really, hairs and bones and blood and shit. And I like the extreme opposite, where the tool or the craft gets to be the queen and takes over." Björk's dynamic relationship with technology comes into stark relief when considering the reason she's calling Ars Technica: a project called Vulnicura VR. This is arguably the world's first full "VR pop album," and it's now available on Windows PC via Steam for $24.99. It, too, feels like a technology bridge in the middle: an experience sitting between VR's skeptical critics and its feverish admirers. It's equal parts approachable and wild. Grounded in nature and simple VR filmmaking tricks, the album floats into the sky in experimental fashion like a neon-scorched phoenix.
The First Attempt at a VR Experience – The Sensorama. In the 1950s, a cinematographer by the name of Morton Heilig came up with a unique concept he later developed, known as the Sensorama. Featuring an arcade-style theater cabinet, the sensorama was aimed at stimulating a person’s senses. It featured a stereoscopic 3D display, fans and smell generators, stereo speakers, as well as a vibrating chair. The idea of the Sensorama was to fully immerse a person into a film-like experience. Heilig also went on to create as much as six short movies for his device.
In other words, it's very, very Björk.
Walk with Björk along a beach of grief
For a certain audience of VR fan, Vulnicura VR isn't necessarily new. The project first emerged publicly in 2015, when Björk released a 360-degree video for "Stonemilker," the lead single on the 2015 studio album Vulnicura. That project came out at the beginning of VR's tipping point, in terms of mainstream interest, thanks to cheap "VR shells" like Google Cardboard. Suddenly, anyone could convert a high-end smartphone into a VR viewmaster of sorts.
While most early VR experimenters threw a mess of unfocused visuals and noise at their 360-degree projects, Björk's first VR video was different. It wasn't a mess. It was simple, refined, and marked by cinematic restraint.The crew, led by filmmaker Andy Thomas Huang, placed a single 360-degree camera on a beach where Bjork had written the song—and had grappled with her recent, real-life divorce. In the video, Björk dances around the viewer, often slinking towards them and making direct eye contact, before splitting into multiple versions of herself, all dancing slowly around the viewer. It's a clever spin on the feeling of relationship unease: of becoming multiple dancing bodies, spun into anxiety and eager to know what's wrong ("like milking a stone to get you to say it," she sings). Meanwhile, a gray ocean's waves approach nearby, hinting to the same unease that can be heard in the song's aching, stripped-down string section. There's no camera trickery, no perspective warping, and nothing that requires spinning around to look all over the place. It's immersive, haunting, and memorable.
After exhibiting this video at Brooklyn's Rough Trade record shop in late 2015 and seeing the public's positive response, Björk accepted offers to build more VR videos for the album's songs. This week's Vulnicura VR app collects everything developed during the traveling exhibit's multi-year run across the world, and it arrives at a time when owning a dedicated VR system isn't as crazy as that sounded in 2015. "Weirdly enough, when I went into the VR album [four years ago], I allowed myself to dream that I'd be able to eventually release it on something as democratic as a gaming device," Björk says. "But I decided that'd be a bonus. I couldn't have that as an end target. I had to let the industry or whatever it is develop, and trust it. That, if I didn't feel it was friendly to creating things, it was in my head. I had to change my attitude [to create something in VR], not the industry's attitude."
The VR Today. Currently Virtual Reality is growing in popularity and while companies like the Oculus Rift are losing some of their customers because of unpopular marketing practices, other devices, including the HTC Vive are taking the VR stage. Furthermore, with Google Cardboard creating the concept and other companies taking note, Smartphone Virtual Reality Goggles are letting consumers easily enjoy and experience immersive virtual and augmented reality. With huge consumer base, the multiple platforms for development, and the lack of many VR games and experiences, small start-ups as well as huge companies are investing huge amounts of money into the development of content for Virtual Reality, which might very well help VR finally achieve the world-wide recognition it didn’t manage to achieve on the market for years.
Further ReadingGuidemaster: 2019’s best VR is a battle between Oculus Quest, everyone else
As she explains, the final version of Vulnicura VR is a many-headed beast from a production and technology standpoint. Its seven VR videos play back in four discrete "engines," and they were built by seven different production teams. The range of styles, from simpler 360-degree videos to "fully 3D" worlds, were all bolted together by the end of 2016 with a barebones budget and an early understanding of how to optimize VR content. Björk repeatedly calls out the "DIY" and "punk" nature of the whole production, adding that she'd watch exhibit attendees in real life and solicit feedback to tweak each VR video after each exhibit.
Endless Possibilities with Virtual Reality. Ever wanted to play a tennis match with the likes of Maria Sharapova, or save the world with the Avengers? VR technology has made the impossible possible, thanks to amazing content now available to let users virtually experience stuff they could only dream of. With the help of add-on features or accessories, such as a surround sound audio system or gloves with attached sensors detecting hand movements along with wands and treadmills, VR enthusiasts can enjoy an alternate reality and an entirely different world.
That's not me. That's everyone. That's the same Pagan little puppet you find in the Amazon, in some tribe.
"It's one of the scariest journeys I've taken on," Björk says about putting the full VR collection together. The source album, Vulnicura, follows a chronological structure as related to her real-life divorce. Björk considered that a benefit in some ways: a timeline to follow, which could add a useful anchor for anyone new to VR. "But I worried," she says about following that structure. "Are people going to be bored shitless having headsets on? And in the beginning, people were throwing them off and shit. Can people even have headsets on for an hour?"
But the team's VR hardware got better over time, and along the way, Björk and her production team benefited from the original installations' biggest limitation. Every headset only had enough memory to hold a single video. Visitors had to wait in a line, watch one video, then wait in another line to watch the next, thus giving them breathing room between each. During this time, Björk learned that one of her early experiments—a sound mix that swirled around users' ears in intense, 360-degree fashion—made viewers feel uncomfortable, not immersed. "So I started making everything still sonically with only one thing moving," she says. "It'd be really intentional and obvious. That seemed to move people to tears, make them love it."
Nintendo’s Virtual Boy 3D Gaming Console. Similar to SEGA, Nintendo also had the vision of putting out a Virtual Reality headset for the gaming market. They even went as far as putting a VR headset on the market, but unfortunately it didn’t make it far. Released in the mid 1990s and known as the Virtual Boy, the device was a 3D gaming console that had a 3D viewing system rigged out to look like virtual reality. While it was way cheaper than the other options on the market at the time, the device also didn’t manage to truly spark the VR movement, simply because it lacked head-tracking and quality graphics and only offered stereoscopic 3D display.