Chroma VR Continues Synthesizing Art, Music and Engineering in VR
Andrew Wheeler posted on October 09, 2019 |
Chroma Mixed Media's pioneering Naona exhibit combines virtual reality, music, art and engineering

If you were in Vancouver at the Canadian Music Centre last month from September 12-15th, you could walk in and experience Chroma Mixed Media's musical virtual reality experience Naona, which first reported on back in April. Chroma was founded in 2015 by Katerina Gimon (composer, vocalist), David Storen (composer, visual artist), and Brian Topp (composer, developer, audio engineer). Based in Vancouver, Canada, Chroma has presented a multitude of projects that explore the relationship between music, visual art, performance, composition, and new technologies.

(Image courtesy of Chroma.)
Left to right: David Storen, Katerina Gimon, and Brian Topp. (Image courtesy of Chroma.)

A New Virtual World

Chroma describes Naona as a work which "places the listener inside a fictional, virtual landscape populated by ancient ruins." As the listener progresses through a series of environments, their movements and interactions within the environments create changes in the musical backdrop. This creates a unique musical journey each time a user experiences Naona. During its exhibition in Vancouver last month, users were given noise-canceling headphones and an Oculus Go virtual reality headset.

Naona is continuing to be developed for the Oculus Go using Unity 3D for developing the world and environment, Ableton Live and Logic Pro X for recording and audio engineering, FMod (interactive audio implementation), Maya, Mudbox (sculpting), and Substance Painter (texturing).

Besides creating 40 minutes of music and visuals, the members of Chroma have been preparing for analogous challenges, like minimizing the learning curve by giving demonstrations and working one-on-one with users to get them comfortable with the platform. They did this at the exhibition in September and gathered some great feedback from participants.

(Image courtesy of Chroma.)
Naona installation in Vancouver. (Image courtesy of Chroma.)

How to Prototype A Virtual Experience

In the development on Naona, Chroma faced unique design challenges and tested the experience more than 700 times over the course of 9 months. One of the difficulties with designing such an experience for the general public is that a wide range of user experience levels need to be taken into account. In designing and testing such an experience, new user outcomes would present themselves during the first exhibit of Naona. One user was amazed without completing the entire experience. Another user completed the experience and waited for the credits to finish, hoping for an Avengers-style ending. These were all reactions that Chroma wasn’t able to anticipate beforehand, although crucial in the development of a new form of art such as this that are to be presented to the general public.

Engineers and artists approach difficult problems using techniques of experimentation, of trial and error. These techniques are designed to help them progress in designing and constructing great products or works of art. Art is an industry, a work of art is also a product. Engineering serves many industries, creating new innovations, technologies and maintaining vital systems that serve both the public and private sectors. Great artists and engineers often cross paths because engineers and artists sometimes become one and the same. 

For example, the Lumière brothers developed photographic equipment at the end of the 19th century. After a great deal of tinkering and prototyping, they developed the Cinématographe and made the first film entitled "La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière (“Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”, 1895). The device both took photographs and created projections with a frame rate of 15 frames per second. As a result of being both engineer and artist, they created more than 40 of the first films in 1896. The films were depictions of what was around them in France. Things like soldiers, a bustling city street, card games and little comedies. The Lumière brothers presented their films which included innovations like the first newsreel of all time and the first-ever documentaries.

Along with Naona, Chroma is developing VR-OSC (Virtual Reality – Open Sound Control), a platform for composing and performing music from within virtual reality. VR-OSC has been the result of Topp’s thesis research at the University of British Columbia and explores several unique and virtual reality specific ways in which a user can control musical parameters. This platform allows users to create customized and unique performance environments from a variety of simple and complex controllers. These include everything from simple sliders and dials to virtual reality specific controllers such as physics-based controllers, spatial mapping, and multi-modal controllers. VR-OSC works by using Open Sound Control messaging (OSC) to interface with external audio software such as Max/MSP, Ableton Live, and Logic. VR-OSC is set to release mid-2020. Take a look at their work below.

Though virtual reality still struggles to enter mainstream entertainment (except for PlayStation VR which is celebrating its 3rd anniversary on October 13th), artists like those at Chroma are pioneering and experimenting with the medium in a unique way. It invites a lot of interesting speculative questions about great artists and powerful technological advances throughout history. At what points did newly invented instruments find their way into the hands of phenomenal musicians? How did a musician of Beethoven’s caliber react to a new instrument? Where are these encounters in history? And were the inventors of musical instruments musicians themselves? If one deconstructs the evolution of musical instruments in order to find out about their origins, the traces becomes ever fainter in terms of where many instruments come from and who invented them. The same thing happens with music. For all the tomes written about musical instruments and musical theory, it is not known why or when music began to happen in the history of our species. One can imagine a bunch of the earliest homo sapiens listening to all the sounds of nature and trying to imitate them.  After all, we still have hunters using animal calls, except now they aren’t required to practice and perfect them, they can simply bring out a Bluetooth rechargeable speaker and touch play with their finger on their mobile devices.

Unfortunately, inventions like the smartphone and digital camera really haven't been around long enough to capture much of human history (though they've already produced most photos in existence by a lot), so we don't really have proper documentation of when great artists meet great new technologies.

Today, groups like Chroma can properly document their experiences. They've created a short video for the public which you can watch below. Enjoy!

Naona will be coming to the Oculus store in early 2020.

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