As Glastonbury tickets are like gold dust, I experimented for the 2022 festival with a virtual reality (VR) experience. Here are the results.
I have an Oculus Quest 2. They are a great bit of kit that is heavily subsidised by Facebook/Meta. One of the main selling points is that the headset is stand-alone, so you don’t need a £3k PC. I’m hoping it’s the start of the democratisation of VR technology.
Early on I also invested in a 6m USB-C cable for £14 on Amazon. It turned out to be a vital investment for a VR festival. Just like mobile phones, video streams burn through battery life. The cable plus a generic USB charger or USB socket enables dancing all day.
At first I tried using the inbuilt spatial audio. Of course, video streams don’t have any 3D sound and for music I found the inbuilt speakers a little timid. However, you can easily couple a pair of over-ear Bluetooth or 3.5mm jack headphones. This, I found was a great improvement, giving the right level of immersive audio with a few bars of volume still available.
Beforehand I played around with two configurations:
- In a comfy chair inside; or
- In a shaded outdoor area with power.
I quickly found that I couldn’t stay stuck to a chair so preferred the outdoor area during the day. As it got colder for the last sets I did come in and move to the lounge.
Getting the Streams
I initially played around using the USB cable to enable the wired Oculus Link mode. While this is quite cool there were a number of negatives for the festival experience:
- You need a beefy PC with a top of the range graphics card and Windows.
- The “home” virtual environment could not be easily disabled, meaning there was the distraction of a virtual house behind a PC desktop window.
- You were limited to the space around the PC, which generally isn’t optimised for dancing.
So I decided on a completely in-app viewing experience.
Now the BBC provides live Glastonbury feeds via their iPlayer app or the iPlayer section of their website (worth the licence fee alone). Unfortunately, there isn’t an iPlayer app for the Quest so we are limited to the live streams via the Internet. This then needs a browser.
The Oculus offers a couple of browser choices. As with normal computers, you can generally do better ditching the built in browser (although the Oculus built-in browser is a fork of Chromium, so isn’t horrendous and has possible customisation opportunities).
After playing around, Firefox Reality seemed to offer the best prospect. Although now ditched by Mozilla, it does offer a good “void” background and a variety of resize options, including a great “3x” window size. Tantalisingly, it did offer “meadow” or “summer” backgrounds but these didn’t seem to be working (they may have ditched the support).
Getting the streams was then an easy case of loading up the Firefox Reality app and opening the iPlayer website. I decided to log-in using my BBC so it would save my stream selections. You went into the Glastonbury mini-site and the live streams would become selectable options once they were running that day. They were generally available from 2pm most days.
Oh and don’t forget the most vital ingredient – a £4 3-litre bottle of Spar Dry Cider.
Over the weekend I played around with both TV and VR coverage. VR was definitely the preferred choice. The large (internal) screen, void background, and headphones created an isolation chamber experience that made it easier to imagine being there.
Also I was surprised by how much I enjoyed dancing while watching in VR. The stand-alone headset (even with the power cable attached) enabled great freedom of movement.
Watching outside was definitely better than watching inside. The fresh air added to the experience. A warning that the infra-red sensors on the controllers don’t work in bright sunlight, so you can’t use it fully outside. But it did seem to work under a shaded covering and might work under a gazebo.
I set up the Oculus “Guardian” with the small “stationary” circle. This worked surprisingly well and mirrored the space you have dancing in a crowd. A cool but slightly hallucinatory side effect results if you plunge too far forward or to the side: the stages in the browser window gradually fade into your quiet weekend garden.
While the weight of the headset does make the top of the forehead sore after several hours, the “elite” head-strap is a must-have investment. I’m excited by rumours that future units are going to reduce the front weight and increase the comfort.
Eye strain also wasn’t really a problem. While more straining than TV or real life, watching music isn’t as bad as movies or TV (which I generally find a little painful in VR). I think this is partly because you have the music as the focus, and you generally look around or shut your eyes more. Also although I am prone to motion sickness, this doesn’t seem to be an issue with video feeds.
Another weird experience, which offers some cool prospects is that camera shots from the back or side of the stages (particularly the Other Stage) make you feel, for a second, as if you were there dancing on the stage or watching from the wings.
One big cool feature of VR (and of streams in general) is you can pause the action and time-travel on “live” streams (e.g. for clashes, toilet breaks, and trips to the fridge). The BBC having each stage stream as one long “video” is brilliant.
A bonus of being able to open three browser windows is you could have different stage streams paused to allow quick stage switching.
I managed a whole week’s worth of moderate exercise on one day via a combination of Amyl and the Sniffers, Turnstile, and Years and Years.
Some warnings and downsides:
- You cannot be reached with headset and headphones on. Make sure your house, children, pets etc. are secure without your (virtual) presence.
- Choppy camera shots, while great for TV, often detract from the VR experience, where static shots from a human point of view offer the best chance of losing yourself in the experience.
- Resolution isn’t a huge downside but where it does show is large-scale shots of the crowd – you just can’t focus on faces and the motion vectors can’t cope with the variation.
- Firefox Reality had issues recognising a “mouse away” event on the full-screen video window. This meant you sometimes struggled to get the controls overlay to disappear. Some tricks that worked included reloading the stream page, pausing then playing then moving the controllers away, leaving the controllers to time out then activating and pointing away, and seeing which actions worked to fade the controls prior to full-screen.
- You did miss the physical presence of a crowd. Clapping or cheering quickly made you remember you were on your own. It’s funny how this feeling must be made of several subconscious non-visual/audio cues from our surroundings.
- With vision and audio taken care of, you realised how much smell and touch often add to the experience. A neighbour had a barbecue on one of the afternoons which helped.
- The lack of 3D immersion is not as big a factor as I thought it would be. The screen sometimes feels like you are looking through a window into the action. You do miss though visual feedback of your own body parts (it just appears as blank void).
- The controllers were generally dropped on a table by my side but occasionally they would glitch and appear hovering in front of me. I’d then have to nudge them to get them to relocate out of shot.
- I learned late than the way to drink a pint of cider without needing to lift up the headset is with a straw.
VR has a great potential to democratise the festival experience for those that can’t afford the hundreds of pounds on tickets, food, drink, and equipment or those with caring responsibilities or disabilities.
It would be reasonably easy to build a VR app that brings in live feeds (as in the browser) but that adds enhancements to the experience.
Here are some ideas for future experience and apps:
- It would be great (?!) to recreate the particular aroma of a festival. At worst I might buy some joss sticks or ask Bath City farm to waft their unique aroma over the hills.
- Hand-tracking for app control.
- Easy bookmarks on the day stream.
- Seeing a virtual body would be great. This doesn’t need to be that realistic or accurate – any feedback for hands / feet / body would be a bonus. You could even have different costumes!
- Making it social – it would be good to drop in a real virtual crowd similar to Rec Room (maybe I need to see if there are any social app alternatives for the streams).
- Body feedback – a haptic suit that mimicked the low frequency bass of a festival would help immersion.
- Pie in the sky – apply a neural network (e.g. NERF models) to the video stream to create a 3D reconstruction that you can enter into. This could also be used to create 3D avatars for crowd members from just one or two photos.
- Lighter headsets for dancing.
- 3D immersive audio would be amazing – having different sound volumes depending where you turned your head would greatly help immersion. You could initially build this as an additional algorithm that worked on a standard stereo audio feed.
- Feeling part of a cloud could be helped with better sound design. You could either extract crowd noises from a stream and/or record your own noises and then amplify these to be coming from behind and the sides. This could even be a configurable option – you could switch between “in crowd” audio or “on stage” audio. You could also combine this with haptic feedback (think stomping feet).
The technology also has the potential to capture a whole new market for live music. It’s noted that live music is where most artists make their money. Offering VR attendance would typically not cannibalise existing gig goers but would add in those who traditionally were not able to attend in person. If the recording kit was portable and easy to set up, bands could hire it cheaply and livestream via existing portals. Indeed, for immersion it was actually preferred to be “in the crowd” with a reasonably static view rather than the more curated fancy camerawork that you see on the Glastonbury streams.
If anybody want to get in contact to chat about a VR app for live stream watching, please get in touch via the comments!