She may not be real, but Hatsune Miku is a bonafide star. The holographic pop singer started life as a promotional vehicle for Japanese music software, but has since parlayed that into a career that most real musicians would be envious of. She’s appeared on late night talk shows and toured the world, and thanks to a partnership with Sega, she has her own line of rhythm games. With the release of PlayStation VR back in October, she took the next logical step: virtual reality.
Hatsune Miku: VR Future Live lets players attend a virtual Miku concert from the comfort of their living rooms, complete with pumping glow sticks, on-stage theatrics, and intimate encores. It’s a very different experience compared to her previous video game excursions, which are more traditional music games with a focus on keeping in tune with the songs. VR Future Live, on the other hand, is all about re-creating the feeling of being at a concert. And for director Tetsuya Ohtsubo, there was a very specific moment when he realized the concept had powerful potential.
“When Miku walked by me in VR, it felt like I’d touched her twin-tail hair or her hands,” he says. “There was a sense that she was really there in front of me, even though she wasn’t. It was a surprising, almost shocking realization.”
The emotional connection of a concert is an important part of VR Future Live, but the game was actually inspired by a much less exciting event. “This thought first occurred to me while I was attending a PlayStation VR technical lecture,” says producer Seiji Hayashi. “Because these characters don’t have a physical form, I began to think that interacting with them in a virtual realm would make their existence feel more real.”
Hayashi was able to take that idea and run with it largely because of Miku’s already extensive video game history with Sega. The developer released the first entry in the Project Diva rhythm game series on the PSP in Japan in 2009, and has since expanded with multiple releases on consoles and in arcades. January will see the launch of Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone on PS4 with more than 200 songs to play through. That wealth of experience gave the developers at Sega a base from which to build the blue-haired pop star’s VR debut, as VR Future Live uses many of the same technologies and visual assets as previous games.
At the same time, the creators didn’t want to simply re-create the experience of past games — hence the concert concept. “We felt that making the VR experience another rhythm game of a similar nature would be meaningless,” explains Hayashi. “So instead, we focused on how to maximize the fun of Hatsune Miku’s performances and pair it with a virtual world in a meaningful way.”
VR Future Live does a surprisingly convincing job at re-creating the concert experience. When you enter the virtual stadium you’re surrounded by the darkened silhouettes of other (virtual) concertgoers, who look like distinct individuals moving in time to the music. The game keeps you physically engaged the whole time; you’ll need to move your hands and arms along with the music, and you can yell “hello!” and “encore!” to get reactions from Miku herself. Playing can be exhausting for both your arms and your throat.
Of course, there are plenty of aspects of a real concert that can’t be re-created with a PSVR strapped to your face. “In an actual concert venue, you can physically feel the loud bass with your body, but that is not possible with VR,” says Ohtsubo. “If you just watch a real concert through a head-mounted display, there’s always going to be this sense that something is missing from a sensory perspective. The biggest challenge for us was to understand the differences in characteristics between a real-life concert and a virtual one, and then express what would constitute ‘realistic’ in a VR world.”
There are also things the game lets you do that wouldn’t be possible in real life. You can change your perspective of the concert at almost any time — you can even get up on stage — and if you move in sync with your fellow attendees, you’ll receive objects like glowsticks and instruments that you can play with. You can also choose which songs are sung, and at the end of each performance you have the chance for a special one-on-one encore that transports you from a normal concert hall to a strange, futuristic dome. “The most important thing is respecting the feeling and experiences that are unique to VR,” Ohtsubo says of these additions.
VR Future Live debuted with one concert, and has since expanded with two more; “Stage three” launched earlier this month and added six new songs to the experience. It’s the final addition to the game — but that doesn’t mean its Miku’s final foray into virtual reality. Though nothing has been announced yet, the team has plenty of other ideas of how to bring the virtual pop star to VR. “Situations that allow the player to grow closer to Miku and her friends, or maybe dialogue with the characters could be some ideas for future experiences,” says Hayashi. “The future is unwritten, but I hope our team can continue creating moving experiences through the medium of VR.”