Like ‘a rave in space’: Austin’s TheWaveVR teams with musician to create virtual-reality album-art experience

Posted October 6th, 2017

At 8 p.m. Central time on Sunday, fans of Los Angeles producer TOKiMONSTA will get to participate in a listening-party concert. But fans will be wearing virtual-reality headsets connected to PCs and will be experiencing an interactive version of the “Lune Rouge” album cover that allows them to hear the music while interacting with each other, playing with VR objects and experiencing fully three-dimensional visualizations that appear to surround the viewer.

It’s a collaboration between TOKiMONSTA and Austin startup TheWaveVR, which in the past year has created four other concert events in its virtual platform. While the slowly growing market of VR experiences is largely comprised of video games, 360-degree short films and clunky avatar-driven chat rooms, TheWaveVR is shooting for something much more artistic, mixing electronic music with dazzling visuals that wouldn’t be out of place at a modern digital-art installation.

TheWaveVRTheWaveVR team includes CEO Adam Arrigo , second from left, who says the company is made up primarily of musicians.

Working out of small house in Austin’s Hyde Park area with a tiny satellite office in Los Angeles, the team currently has eight full-time employees and four contractors, but hopes to double that in the next year. The house is outfitted with many Oculus and HTC Vive headsets with VR sensors set up and ready to go in almost every room. There’s also a “jam room” to play actual, real-world music. CEO Adam Arrigo says being a musician is one of the requirements for working at the company (unless you’re great at digital art). 

Last year, the company raised a $2.5 million seed round, and Arrigo says it has since brought its total of funding up to $4 million.

When it was first pitched to me, TheWaveVR sounded like a platform for DJs to play music while those who could afford VR headsets would bob their heads near a virtual stage and chat with each other.

TheWaveVR does that, but what the team is going for has gotten more ambitious and much more interesting, particularly for its concerts, which continue to play in a loop once they conclude as a live event.

It’s hard to get across how the platform works in a still photo, online video or a presentation deck, a problem that prompted Arrigo to create a VR PowerPoint deck, one that not only explains what the company is doing, but that draws a headset-wearing visitor in to demo a WaveVR concert as a full sensory experience.

The demo comes complete with handheld controllers allowing the visitor to touch shooting comets, blow a virtual airhorn or manipulate the surface of artwork from a show made with Iranian artist Ash Koosha, a project Arrigo says was WaveVR’s most serious effort yet. The concert experiences can take anywhere from a few days to a month to build and also allow for the a DJ to deploy visual effects in real time and for viewers to build their own music loops within that world. 

A lot of VR feels gimmicky or like the start of something, not a final product. TheWaveVR, even in its current beta form, is both playful and arty, sometimes stunningly beautiful and with a terrific soundtrack of electronic dance music. Reviews on Steam, a platform where TheWaveVR can be downloaded, are almost uniformly positive, with one user describing it as “like being at a rave in space.” 

The plan is to continue to produce live events while also allowing users to build their own VR spaces and parties. The company plans to continue to keep its app for Oculus and HTC Vive free while making money from sponsorships and in-app purchases as well as, eventually, selling tickets to some of its virtual events. The company hopes to continue riding out the slow rise of VR in hopes that hardware sales to experience it continue to grow over the next 18 months to two years.

For the “Lune Rouge” release, the company is working with the musician by taking album art and extrapolating it into a VR world, giving motion and dimension to what started as a 2-D image. It’s art directed by David Wexler, a visual artist on the WaveVR team who goes by “Strangeloop” and who’s worked with The Rolling Stones and Skrillex.

Why would someone go into a VR concert instead of attending a real one, like say Austin City Limits Festival, which will be happening at the same time? Arrigo says the experience is not just about the music or meeting other fans, but the dream-like state that TheWaveVR offers.

“It’s giving people a space that they can get lost in and forget they’re in a simulation,” Arrigo said.

He says he doesn’t believe a studio creating a platform like TheWaveVR would fit in just any city. Arrigo said, “The overall vibe of Austin is important to our culture.”