Starting on 30 May 2018, Facebook made its first effort to disrupt live performance by layering a virtual reality social engagement over the top of it. Partnered with VR producer NextVR  and MLB, AEG, and Lionsgate, Facebook launced Oculus Venues with a concert by Australian performer Vance Joy.

The proposition was simple: Anyone with an Oculus virtual reality headset could pop their headset on, open the Oculus Venues app and watch the concert streamed live. This wasn’t going to be like watching a concert DVD. This was in real time with the ability to watch the concert along with the attendees (both real and virtual) of the concert.

I missed the Vance Joy concert. I had hoped that after the concert, it would be available to stream on demand after. But no – these are strictly live events. If you miss out when they’re on, you miss out. Thankfully, the next day, Oculus Venues held another event – stand-up comedy at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York.

As I came to discover, the promise that Oculus Venues holds is incredible. The reality of experiencing it, however, is a cold and sterile activity that takes a lot of the joy of live performance out of the experience.


The technology

At this stage we are all familiar with 360 video. It’s not the most engaging viewing experience, but it does provide the opportunity to get the whole picture of what is happening around an event. It’s one thing to see a photo or video of something, but there’s so much more context when you can see how the world is reacting around around that focal point. Watching an event through Oculus Venues is just like watching a live streamed 360 video, only with a virtual tiered stadium seating stand placed directly in front of the performer.

While the video is 360, Oculus Venue users do have some capacity to move around. Users are dropped into a random seat in the virtual stand, but if there’s an empty seat nearby, the user just needs to point at it with their controller and the user can move to that position, giving a preferred view of the stage. Surrounding users in the virtual stand is other Oculus Venues attendees. Everyone has a microphone on their helmet, so can chat with each other. Of course, if you would rather focus on the show, you can mute those around you. And if you’d rather have your own private viewing booth, a click of a button can take you there as well.

The promise

Every day there are amazing events taking place around the world. Stand-up comedy sets, plays, sporting events, live music shows, panel conversations, poker games, etc. The opportunity to sit in the audience of these from a world away in real-time is fantastic. No longer does geography need to be a barrier to attending live cultural moments.

Layered into this is the ability to attend these events with your friends. Let’s say Ryan Adams is performing an intimate set in an LA bar for a room that sits 100 – how great would it be to be able to attend that with my two pals from Sydney, Australia who also love Ryan Adams, leaning in to make sarcastic comments about Oasis when he covers Wonderwall?

Oculus Venues would probably feel more natural for sport where stadium seating is the default.

The reality

In this incredibly early phase of VR, the experience of sitting in the audience of a live show via VR will never come anywhere near the reality of being there in person. But, that doesn’t mean that the experience can’t be approximated. That isn’t quite happening here. Sitting in the virtual stand automatically creates a sense of unreality to the experience. It no longer feels like you’re in the room, but are dropping in from afar. It’s like looking into a room from behind a screen.

I want to feel like I’m in the actual audience of the show and not in a fake environment sitting alongside avatars. I’d find it more engaging if they just rigged multiple 360 video cameras around the venue, allowing me to switch between them.

It is still more compelling than watching the same event as a live streaming video, but it’s not quite there yet. It feels cold and clinical when the appeal of a live show is in seeing and feeling the sweat of the performer.

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