Chances are, if you think of something new to do with virtual reality, someone already did it — or at least tried — in the '90s. The VR music video, for example, is still a nascent art form, in the sense that every kind of consumer VR is only a couple of steps past the prototype stage and may remain there for years to come. But it was born at least 20 years ago, and like a lot of '90s VR, the early examples of it are utterly surreal and sort of amazing.
The video above is called Still Life, and it's actually meant as a tech demo for a music visualizer, like that thing Guitar Hero studio Harmonix is making for the PlayStation VR. Shown at the 1996 Siggraph conference, it's a vanitas still life (the kind with the skulls) whose elements respond to outside musical input by thumping, rotating, and generally floating around in the VR version of low-earth orbit. Two decades out, the endeavor feels like avant-garde art, or the opening cutscene from the world's weirdest low-poly video game.
Pay attention to the floating skull
If you just want the music, you can skip to around 2:45, but the first half helps explain what's going on. The visualization tools come from a major '90s VR player called Fakespace, whose founder Mark Bolas is now at USC's Mixed Reality Lab — we've covered the lab before, and Bolas sent me this video during some unrelated correspondence. While one person is watching the experience through a headset, a second can help create the music by playing a virtual drum kit, making it an early form of social VR as well.
The piece's reach was far more limited than that of present-day virtual reality: one of those headsets cost thousands of dollars, and the computer running the simulation was more in the $100,000 range. Today, Fakespace Music has morphed into the somewhat unfortunately named Daydream VR, run by Bolas' brother Niko. But Still Life reminds us how much work actually happened in the '90s, and how little of it we still remember.
Bonus track, below: a 1995 Fakespace music video featuring music from experimental supergroup Praxis.