Avatars, Carl Cox and outer space: What does raving look like in the metaverse?

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM
  • Big tech says virtual events are the future of nightlife. We explore some of today's options to see if they deserve the hype.
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  • As millions of dollars pour into the metaverse, platforms like Roblox, Decentraland and Sensorium Galaxy are throwing virtual raves that could change nightlife forever. A scattering of avatars stood motionless on a blockily-rendered dance floor. Low-bitrate techno pounded away, played by two DJs projected onto a giant screen that loomed over the polygon landscape. "Live rave happening right now in Decentraland," marketing entrepreneur Alex Moss tweeted with a video of the virtual party. Moss had organised the event, named THE LIGHTBULB MAN HATEFUCK METARAVE, to celebrate the launch of an NFT artwork by Norwegian painter Bjarne Melgaard. But his rave-cum-promo was soon being savaged on Twitter. "Embarrassing," one user wrote. "Depressing," said another. One tweet described it as "the worst rave recorded in human history." The glitch-filled video now has over five million views. The online world that hosted the party is called Decentraland. It's one of several metaverse platforms being feverishly hyped by crypto-watchers, clairvoyant tech bros and Paris Hilton. These avatar-filled spaces look like trippier versions of Second Life, but unlike the wholesome 3D worlds of the early 2000s, today's metaverse is built to be bought. Investor money is pouring in. In 2017, buying a sliver of digital real estate on Decentraland would have cost $20. Now the same piece sells for $100,000. Amid this gold rush, the metaverse is being talked up as a new, all-encompassing version of the Internet: a place to host business meetings, buy digital Balenciaga hoodies and—yes—hit the dance floor. TikTok legend PinkPantheress is the latest to get in on the act with her online party for the 2022 BRIT Awards. But with real-life events making their post-pandemic return, is the nightlife community really ready to swap living, breathing clubs for pixels on a screen? Music industry figures believe so, and countless virtual clubs have popped up, many backed by investors and big-name DJs. Sensorium Galaxy, a metaverse dedicated to electronic music due to launch this spring, is a 3D world resembling outer space. Users can adopt an avatar, which they then use to attend live and pre-recorded sets for a fee. Founded by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, Sensorium Galaxy is backed by $100 million of investment and has the pick of the industry’s biggest artists. Carl Cox, Charlotte de Witte and Black Coffee are already on board, as is serial futurist and metaverse convert Jean-Michel Jarre. Sensorium Galaxy is hoping to tackle a persistent problem of virtual parties: poor user experience. Whether it's Decentraland's Dubai-in-cyberspace dystopia or the vaguely sinister pastel worlds of teen game Fortnite, the look and feel of the metaverse is a far cry from the spirit and sweat of a dance floor. Sensorium Galaxy's designers have decided against recreating a nightclub, hoping instead to wow users with sci-fi-inspired stages that make Tomorrowland look low-key. The next issue is what clubgoers are actually supposed to do in the metaverse. Most virtual parties let users move around and do dance moves, but with the best will in the world the haptics can't match the real thing. Sensorium Galaxy believes its chat function, which lets users converse with AI-driven virtual beings, will keep users occupied. "It's not just about passively absorbing the shows," Sasha Tityanko, the platform's deputy CEO and art director, told Resident Advisor. "Social interaction is one of the reasons we are seeing audiences coming to virtual worlds." Sensorium Galaxy users can chill in a lounge, buy mind-warping virtual drinks and explore celestial scenery. Sensorium Galaxy isn't the only VR world offering these tricks. Music events on established gamer platforms like Fortnite and Roblox have long offered fancy visuals, from cosplaying NPCs (non-player characters) to a digital likeness of David Guetta. But as in the real world, what online events gain from star-studded lineups and whizzy effects they stand to lose in community feel. Can you really feel shared euphoria when your avatar is one of millions of humanoids linked only by a broadband line? One virtual nightclub keeping things small and community-led is Club Qu. Launched during the first Covid-19 wave in 2020, the Berlin- and London-conceived VR space is less metaverse and more cultural project. What began as a virtual venue complete with bar, toilets and a douchey bouncer has evolved into a fully-fledged collective, staging both online and physical events. For the crew's fifth online party, they invited DJs from six queer collectives to play sets accompanied by shapeshifting motion capture dancers. The Club Qu team wanted to do the opposite of the extravagant but often heteronormative events dominating other virtual worlds. "We didn't want to make some all-singing, all-dancing mega experience, because if that was a physical event we'd stay the hell away and opt for a dank basement with a busted bathroom," a spokesperson for Club Qu told RA. Instead, priority was given to creating a welcoming, diverse environment. "We are people who understand the nuances of niche, underground, often marginalised spaces," they added. This idea of virtual clubs as safe spaces for marginalised people is the most compelling argument for their existence. While by no means free of abuse, online worlds can bring nightlife to people who cannot access clubs, either because they are physically unable (wheelchair access in clubs can be non-existent) or because they fear rejection due to their appearance or gender identity. Dismissing VR parties is easy for those who live in a cosmopolitan city full of open-minded clubs. But for much of the world's population, these spaces are out of reach. Despite moves to make online events inclusive and interesting, it's debatable whether people can be tempted to log on post-pandemic. Lost Horizon, a VR world based on Glastonbury Festival's Shangri-La area, gained a worldwide audience of over four million for its launch in spring 2020. But that was during lockdown, when people were stuck at home with little to do besides feed their sourdough starters. As soon as the pandemic receded, Lost Horizon opened a real-life venue in Bristol. And while parties on platforms like Roblox and Fortnite continue to pull in big audiences, only a minority come from the nightlife scene. 54 percent of Roblox users are under the age of 13. Still, virtual parties might not need to sign up clubgoers at all. "Our approach was never to replace existing parties," said Frank Hahn, who founded the RAVE SPACE online club and now runs a VR museum for NFT art. Hahn added that rather than replicating the club vibe, online parties bring their own benefits, like being able to chat with ravers all over the world. "There are things you can experience [in virtual clubs] that you could never experience in real life," he said. The promise, then, is big. So big that any doubts over whether we actually want the metaverse cease to matter. Like it or not, as long as the investment dollars keep flowing and cartoon apes are selling for $2.85 million, virtual worlds are here to stay. But when it comes to club culture, one thing tech CEOs ignore at their peril is community. "That's one of the fundamentals of clubbing," said Club Qu, "being a part of something." Images: Sensorium Galaxy
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