Going on a musical trip with Harmonix Music VR

Virtual reality is all about presence, the concept of transporting you to another world and making you forget about where your body actually is. “Trippy” seems a pretty apt term to describe that very idea, and Harmonix is leaning into it with an app the studio is currently calling Harmonix Music VR. It’s a music visualizer, analyzing the songs on your hard drive and turning them into wild worlds that you can play with just by moving your head.

Two settings are currently available, Tropical Beach and Martian Ruins. The former is grounded in the real world, although it’s certainly not what you’d call photorealistic, and is a relatively sedate experience meant for low-key music. The latter is more of a ride that takes the user through various ruins on the red planet, and it’s a more visually outlandish experience than Tropical Beach that’s designed for uptempo tunes.

Just to see what would happen, we paired a fast-moving rock song — “Everlong” by Foo Fighters, which Harmonix must be contractually obligated to include in its demos — with Tropical Beach. As the beach faded into view during the song’s soft intro, Chinese lanterns floated across the screen. I soon realized I could point my head at different hotspots to change the visualization, and stared in one location to shift to a dark screen with small colored lights moving to the beat of the music. It was relaxing, even as the chorus of “Everlong” raged in my ears.

I ended up staying in that visualizer — “fireflies,” Harmonix Music VR producer Matty Studivan later told me — for the rest of the song. That wasn’t exactly by choice; I couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. I turned to look at the edges of the screen multiple times, and a halo formed at the rim, which I took to be an indicator of the edge of the game world. Studivan explained that that’s actually how you change the visualizer from fireflies to something else, at which point I felt pretty silly, although he added that Harmonix is still fine-tuning the transitions.

A small team at Harmonix, running from five or six up to as many as 12, has been working on Harmonix Music VR for six to eight months, according to Studivan. He described the app as an “authored experience applied algorithmically to a song,” saying that the developers designed certain events or behaviors to trigger depending on musical elements like instrumental breaks, the tempo and the volume. This includes changes in the sky, weather and atmosphere of whichever visualization you’re playing around with.

Harmonix Music VR is definitely more of an interactive VR app than a game, but creating virtual worlds out of something a lot of VR users already have — music on their computers — is a smart use of the technology. While we tried Harmonix Music VR on an Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, Studivan said Harmonix could bring the app to any VR hardware, including the Samsung Gear VR.