Viacom's Times Square headquarters is wide and covered in tan marble. Flat-screen TVs are dialed up to the company's flagship brands like MTV, BET, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. It's a big, busy building. No wonder a group of video game engineers found it to be a perfect place to hide out.
Down a gray hallway is Viacom NEXT, a small virtual reality division formed by Viacom executive Chaki Ng in October 2015. Ng hired 13 R&D engineers from the video-game industry to work on virtual-reality experiments, so that when the time comes, Viacom's VR strategy is solid. But even Ng admits that VR is a risk.
"We've managed to survive by flying under the radar," said Ng. Operating a tech startup within a media company isn't easy, he says. "It's like Whac-A-Mole – you have to know when to stick your head out."
On Tuesday, at South by Southwest, the team is unveiling its most ambitious VR project yet: the surprisingly abstract The Melody of Dust. Unlike other music-centered VR products, Melody isn't a game. There is no marquee-ready Deadmau5 co-sign. You're not onstage with Bono or front row at a DNCE concert. When you step into The Melody of Dust, you won't even recognize the songs. None of them have lyrics.
In Melody, you're alone in a dark castle chamber. You trigger music by throwing objects like candlesticks and pillows into a vibrant whirlpool in the room. It's basically a virtual hangout zone. The objects are there to inspire exploration. There is no Tyrannosaurus Rex looming around the corner. No Nazi snipers or flesh-eating zombies lying in wait. There is a tarantula, but chances are you won't even see it.
"We don't exist to make money," says Viacom NEXT's senior director Rob Ruffler, acknowledging the obvious question: why a massive company like Viacom would even bother to create such an unmarketable product. "We exist to figure out what this medium is going to take to, so that when the time comes, we know exactly what to do."
"We don't exist to make money. We exist to find out what this medium is going to take to." –Viacom NEXT's Rob Ruffler
Ng and Ruffler quickly determined that music is a good starting point for VR. With a song lasting only three to five minutes, music appeals to people who may think a 20-minute game or concert is too big of a time investment, says Ng.
The Melody creators also believe VR offers musicians, in turn, new opportunities for expression. Already, pop artists like Beyoncé and Justin Bieber signaled change when both released avant-garde audiovisual albums (Lemonade and Purpose, respectively), both of which were nominated for multiple 2016 Grammy Awards.
"Music and virtual reality just seems to click," says Ng. The issue is finding an experience music fans will seek out once the novelty of VR wears off. For that, Viacom NEXT brought in independent producer/DJ Hot Sugar, who's been toying with this sort of thing – albeit on projectors, in basements – for years.
Nick Koenig, 32, has never been signed to a label in his 15-year music career performing as Hot Sugar. He's given beats to everyone from the Roots to Broad City. "Every time Abbi sees the stuffed tooth animal when she's high from the dentist's office, that's my beat," Koenig laughs.
Koenig opens the door of his apartment in New York's Stuy Town wearing a Les Miserables shirt (a coincidence, he says, given that his parents are French). Inside the tidy one-bedroom is a trove of keyboards and guitars. A translucent BC Rich that wouldn't be out of place in a Stryper video is propped against the couch. Koenig sits on the stool of a vintage 1920s piano he painted Easter pink. On his desk, a moss ball floats in a fishbowl. "I just became obsessed with moss," he says with a curious smile. "Each patch is like its own rainforest."
Koenig wasn't always anti–Big Music. But getting sued by 50 Cent as a junior at New York University soured him on the industry early on. "I had thousands of downloads, but it was 50 Cent's Massacre that did it," he says. "The attorney was like, 'You owe $150,000 – for each song.'" The suit was settled for a pittance in comparison, but the ordeal only drove Koenig into a deeper digital frenzy, out of which came Hot Sugar.
"At first I was pigeonholed as an Internet musician," he says softly, as if still stung. Koenig's first press photo – a GIF – perplexed labels and press reps in 2009. But after years of rejection, now he sees traditional music industry as out-of-touch at best. Exhibit A: He recalls watching his hero Slick Rick perform in Bushwick recently when an A&R rep came up and said: "This rapper has swag! Does he have a mixtape?"
Ng hired Koenig largely because, as a free agent, they could work without incurring mountains of legal paperwork. "Nick could be a genuine collaborator because we were only dealing with him," says Ruffler. "Plus, he was very chill and open to creative input, which you're unlikely to have with a big name artist."
After only one year, Ng claims Viacom NEXT has the capacity to create a virtual music library. "If our CEO decided that we were going to double down on VR music projects, we could step up and own that space," he says flatly.
Viacom is one of several content providers in a discreet arms race to figure out how to use virtual reality before it becomes ubiquitous. Last May, Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of VR startup Oculus Rift put the industry on notice. Two months later, Google snapped up HTC's VR headset. Sony unveiled one of its own. Even traditional news outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and newer companies like HBO were quick to assemble their own virtual-reality departments to figure out how to present their content in VR when the boom inevitably hits.
Qualcomm executive Tim Leland says that "2018 and 2019 are going to be big for VR." In March, the smartphone-chip manufacturer bought VR processor Snapdragon for $5 billion to make wireless VR headsets – a sign, according to Ng and Ruffler, that VR is about to explode.
"Almost everything that becomes great starts out a little clunky," Qualcomm's Leland says. "But that's what it costs to be a pioneer."
Ng wants to bring Viacom into that frontier. Ideally, Ng envisions Viacom NEXT providing in-house tech consultancy and risk-management services for Viacom brands as VR takes off. "Maybe I'm crazy, or some kind of a rebel – but if you leave me alone, things will happen," he laughs.
Koenig thinks VR could upend music videos and become a completely new art form for musicians. That is, beyond a predictable assembly line of music VR gimmicks. "It gets frustrating when I do a Melody play test with major label folks – they'll stop halfway through and say, 'Wow, this is incredible – so how do we do this for Joe Jonas?'" The scruffy musician sighs, running his hands through his messy dark hair. "Like, don't they see I'm giving them a blueprint for something that's never been done before?
"Everyone wants to stand next to a celebrity, but there are other experiences that make people feel unique," he continues. "And these sensory options are limitless in comparison." Koenig sees virtual reality like the birth of cinema. "Before all the infuriating traditions that would cement what a film should look like for the next 100 years, people were allowed to experiment," he says.
"You had people like Georges Méliès taking us to the moon." Koenig smirks. "And then, of course, a great Smashing Pumpkins video."