Image courtesy of EMI & WPP

Into the Innerverse: Inside Bastille’s first virtual concert

Is technology helping? Are we losing ourselves? Who holds the power?

These aren’t just hallmarks of good sci-fi, they’re big questions that people find themselves asking more and more. Online communities have yielded mixed results, and yet, humans are endlessly intrigued with the possibilities of exploring fantastical worlds, especially when the promise is built on a mix of wonder and connection.

But when does escapism go wrong? And how do we stay grounded in the midst of these worlds? That’s the debate of Bastille’s new VR-focused concept album, Give Me The Future. Memories, avatars, and shady corporations are all in play, providing a ripe playground for heady concepts, coated in a pop sheen. And to some bands, this would be enough. A number-one album is nothing to sneeze at, but Bastille wanted to push things even further, using the world they’d developed to make a connection between themselves and tour-hungry fans, collectively waiting out the pandemic.

“As a band, we try to shy away from what’s expected,” says Dan Smith, the band’s founder and lead singer. “Our new album Give Me The Future is about our relationship with technology, and we really wanted to do something that pushed the boundaries of what’s currently possible and that looked towards what’s to come in the future. This is the next level of interactivity within music.”

The result is The Give Me The Future Experience, a “hybrid metaverse / physical gig” that plays with the same VR-as-portal feeling that ripples throughout the album. Created by content creation company Hogarth and global agency VMLY&R—both part of media giant WPP—the experience takes fans from a futuristic apartment into a vibrant city, which serves as a Blade Runner-esque backdrop for the band’s performance. You fly through buildings, float past holograms, and eventually find yourself in a desert surrounded by dancing, fan-driven avatars, who are also enjoying the set before a final hot-air balloon ride. All in a matter of minutes.

We wanted to connect people all over the world into a shared experience, whether they were streaming in with a Kinect or actually there.” says Perry Nightingale, SVP of Creative AI at WPP. “Suddenly, they were at a show that felt new and different from a traditional concert gig, and they didn’t have to just stand there. They could help shape it.

“And it was great for Bastille, too. After two years of playing to their phones or using green screens, the band wanted to connect with people and that feeling they get from performing in a room. So getting to high-five people from across an ocean was pretty amazing.”

Designing a virtual experience

While the heart of the project is simple—give fans a ‘best of both’ experience—the initial design was actually a little tricky. Would this be a music experience in VR or an interactive experience with music? Each route led in a different direction, which was complicated by the fact that WPP had to optimize for three technical channels: pre-rendered film, real-time LED wall, and everything that went into the VR. But this process also had an added benefit. Since it was being created in Unreal Engine, WPP also got to test how a single virtual world could be re-used across multiple platforms, which is only becoming more prevalent in their campaigns.

Ultimately, they settled on 8K stereoscopic 360° video for the experience with two points of interactivity. While the band was performing, they would see live fans in front of them and particle-like avatars behind them on a 39 ft. LED wall. Created with Niagara, Unreal Engine's VFX system, the latter would represent live motion-captured fans, who were being streamed in from around the globe, to dance, watch, and interact with the band. All of this would be pre-recorded and assembled for future Oculus viewers, who can create ribbon trails during the performance.
Unreal Engine provided a central hub for the project, giving artists instant access to professional virtual production tools and visual effects. “Those tools were so critical,” says Nightingale. “And we needed things to work, since we were running ten experiments through a single platform. The streaming of the fans, the 8K 360°, the avatars in the LED wall, Niagara VFX in VR—we were doing a lot of organizational firsts at the same time. Now, we can go to our clients and say, ‘Do this, it works.’ ”

As a coder, Nightingale also appreciated how simple and visual the process was within the engine, particularly due to the Blueprint visual scripting system. “I find the instant feedback and drag-and-drop nature of Blueprint and Niagara much more engaging than long, written code," he says. "My job now is to get Unreal into the hands of as many artists at WPP as possible, so they can make great work. It has more accessibility and ease-of-use than other technologies, which means we can tap into a much larger talent pool.”

The value of virtual worlds

What began as a way for Bastille to expand an artistic concept has become a flag in the ground for novel world building—a concept that Nightingale suggests has always been guiding interesting artists, as most are usually finding some way to bring us into their own lives, thoughts, or some place they want us to feel or enjoy. The difference now is what you can build on top of that.

“Tools like Unreal Engine make it a literal experience for the first time. This isn’t just voices and album covers, this is looking around and actually seeing these metaphorical places as real and all around you,” he says. “World building has been a through line across all of Bastille’s albums, which make them ideal for a project like this. I don’t think it's an accident that Give Me The Future got to number one; not only does it sound great, it’s a world we relate to, and one we want to be a part of and explore.”
And when it comes to virtual performances, he’s also bullish.

“Virtual performances are here to stay, but we are still working out what that means,” he notes. “I love that we are in this moment where we get to rethink how we enjoy entertainment together. I have friends with disabilities that will never find it easy to go to a show. We all have to travel less for our planet.

Projects like this help us find out how we can combine the best of what’s come before with what we think is coming next, so we can create something new. That’s what Bastille are singing about and that’s what we made. I love how it turned out.”

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