Roaches, rage, & Harmonix Music VR

Harmonix Music VR is weird and a bit wacky.

Years ago (actually, more like “decades ago”), friends and acquaintances of mine swarmed over a certain townhouse complex in the ‘burbs. It was cheap, and you got a ton of space for your buck. They were two- and three-bedroom townhomes with basements, so you could easily cram in anywhere from three to eight people, assuming you could find people willing to live in the basement.

Of course, there were reasons why it was cheap. For one, there were train tracks literally right next to the place. Smallish parking lot with a couple of rows, a few dozen feet of land, and then bam, train tracks. Sometimes that fucker would blast off in the middle of the night, which was annoying until you learned to just not hear it. If you couldn’t filter it out, tough luck.

There was also the annual Great Cockroach Migration, which could be considered both a turn-off and an attraction, depending on how you feel about cockroaches or how easily entertained you are.

Since “cockroach migration” is probably a somewhat fuzzy term, let me give you a very clear picture of what I mean. I don’t mean that the place was roach-infested, because for the most part, it really wasn’t. At least, not in my experience. If you were careful with your food, you were fine. I did hear rumors that some buildings were worse than others, but again… I’m guessing there were people in those buildings who weren’t very careful with their food.

Once a year, though, the cockroaches would march. For a few days, the grass would be literally crawling with those little buggers, all marching in the same direction. I don’t know where they came from or where they were going, but it was an annual certainty. Thousands and thousands of them. Maybe millions. There were a lot of them, anyway. It was gross and eerie and strange. Sometimes we would sit on the porch and drink, and watch them march, and occasionally threaten to throw the more squeamish members of the group onto the grass… that sort of thing. The roaches kept to the grass, for the most part. Occasionally, they’d cross a section of sidewalk to get to the next section of grass, but they stayed within a relatively narrow invisible path. Which also seemed weird, but it meant that you were fairly safe while you were sitting on the porch.

Understandably, that sort of thing tends to put people off.

At the high point, I think there were five units in the complex filled with people I knew. Mostly single roommate situations, occasionally couples, and lots of drama. People would move in, have spats, and move out again. Parties were sometimes multi-unit affairs, with people circulating from one to the next. A cold war was waged in one of the units over a broken washing machine. For a time, there was a rubber-band-gun guerilla action going on, with accompanying wars of escalation.

This image came from a mini-marathon of music from Dragon Age.

There was a weird mania for a while over this device that one of the guys had. You put the thing on, and it flashed all kinds of weird lights in your eyes. It was supposed to relax you. Or maybe drive you insane. Either way, I refused to put the thing on because it had touched a lot of heads and I was squirrely about it back then. (Ok, still am, but that’s beside the point.)

I suspected, at the time, that the device was being used to, er… augment certain states of mind. The stoned kind, I mean. At the time, the drug of choice was booze, and if you did anything else, you kept it a secret from everyone who didn’t. I didn’t, therefore I never really knew. Not for certain.

Incidentally, I’m hideously, horribly allergic to marijuana. I’ve always tried to stay as far away from the stuff as possible, because even second-hand smoke burns the hell out of my eyes, makes them red and itchy as hell, and causes tearing (which is like saying that Niagara Falls is a trickle of water).

It can also flip me from “fine” to “insane, irrational anger” in about two seconds, though I don’t know whether that’s due to some sort of chemical/biological reaction, or if it’s just a reaction to having my face suddenly go off like a solar flare. What I do know is that back when I was going to concerts, there were two possible outcomes: either I’d be in a relatively pot-free zone, and therefore fine, or I’d get tons of smoke in my face and transform into Rage, the unsung fifth horseman of the apocalypse.

They tried to get me to put the device on, of course, but I refused. One, I didn’t want it on my head for the usual reason (“Ick, I bet you never clean that thing, and I don’t know where it’s been!”) Two, given what I suspected about the device’s use, I didn’t want to risk some residual substance infecting my face.

Apparently, Harmonix Music VR is a lot like that device. At least, that’s what the spousal unit said. He lived with the guy who owned the device, so he would know.

I have no excuse for Harmonix Music VR; I played a demo before I bought it, so I can’t say that I wasn’t aware of what I was getting. It’s basically a VR visualizer for your music, with a few interactive bits.

There are four modes: “The Party”, “The Beach”, “The Easel”, and “The Trip”.

Loading up almost anything by Two Steps From Hell gets downright terrifying at times.

The Trip is exactly what it sounds like, and there’s no interaction at all. You load up a song, or a playlist, sit back, and just watch the visualizations fly by. It’s like being inside a really trippy kaleidoscope. (All but one of the images in this post are from The Trip.)

I had the spousal unit check it out, and he said that vertigo kicked in for him during The Trip, with no difference between standing vs. sitting. Turning around and watching it backwards, on the other hand, almost entirely eliminated the feeling for him. He was much more comfortable watching it go away, in other words.

The Trip can be pretty as heck, with some really neat patterns, but sometimes the color combinations are so ugly, they should be illegal.  If you like to sit and listen to music while doing nothing else, The Trip isn’t a bad choice. At least your eyes get to play, too.

A visualization from The Beach. You can see the outlines of palm tree leaves on the right. Sort of.

The Beach is an interactive-step up from The Trip, but there’s still not much to actually do. During The Beach you’re on (duh) a beach. You can look at certain objects to make them expand into different visualizations. You can look away to close them and return to the beach. You can look at tiki torches to travel to a couple of other places nearby, where you can then look at other things to expand them into different visualizations. That’s pretty much the it. It’s The Trip with some mild control over the types of visualizations that you want to see, except they mostly just hang in front of you, rather than come at you. The Beach gets old after… well, after the first time, really. Maybe the second.

Next is The Party, where you can make a few claymation-looking figures dance, shoot random objects over the dance floor, rearrange the room, or engage in thoroughly unsatisfactory record-scratching in the DJ booth. The Party was actually good for a few laugh-out-loud moments when my manipulations of the figures went a bit sideways, but the charm wears off quickly.

Finally, you have The Easel — which, as far as I’m concerned, is the meat of the entire game (experience?) I can see myself occasionally loading up The Trip when I just want to listen to music and see what happens, but The Easel was the entire reason I paid money for it.

In The Easel, you load up a playlist and then get stuck inside an empty room. Using the Move controllers, you can pull up a palette that has various line tools, a few preset objects, and some looping effects, and then paint the air with them. They react to the music, and you can pull, push, spin, and manipulate the entire layout. It’s effectively a VR painting that moves and reacts to the music. You can literally surround yourself with it.

Ultimately, The Easel is just a wonky little experience that probably doesn’t have a lot of replay value for many people, but I keep going back to it when I just want to listen to music for a little bit and do something relatively mindless. Like a zen garden in the air. With music. Eventually, I suspect that I’ll put the whole thing aside and never think about it again, but right now, it’s good for a fifteen minute brain-break every evening, which actually seems to improve my mood.

A few gripes about The Easel:

  • I want more stuff in the palette to play with, especially more looping effects.
  • There’s a limit to the number of things you can add, and it’s way too small. Don’t put artificial limits on my creativity, man!
  • You’re physically placed on one side of the room, which is another annoying, arbitrary limitation. It would have been much cooler if you were standing in the center and the room was bigger.
  • Actually, I wish they’d let you choose to get rid of the walls entirely. And maybe let you choose the color of the void you’d then be standing in.

There are some big gripes, too. There’s just not much to play with in Harmonix Music VR. The whole thing feels like a demo, not something you’d want to shell out $14.99 for — but ymmv. If you really like just sitting and watching visualizations in your media player of choice, then the ability to do the same thing in VR might appeal to you.

I can’t vouch for its use as a stoner playground, but I imagine it would be quite effective. Or would maybe make you throw up. Serves you right for performing the Ritual of Summoning for Rage, Unsung Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. That dude is no fun at parties. Trust me.

Sometimes, I really like this one. Other times, it fills me with fear.

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