Björk's new VR album shows emotion and audio are the future of the medium

First look: We got to experience Vulnicura VR in one of London's best kept secrets, going deep into the project's history with co-creative director and long-time Björk collaborator James Merry.

Today sees the long-awaited release of Björk's first full VR experience, which Digital Arts was lucky to grab an exclusive preview of in the best way possible: standing inside a pod within a rather sleekish virtual reality arcade.

The venue was Otherworld, a fairly new addition to London's East End, and the experience is Vulnicura VR, a visual re-imagining of the 2015 Björk album of the same name. Standing in an Icelandic landscape, the viewer is invited to select from nine music videos, one for each track of the original LP, as made over the last five years since Björk first began experimenting with the medium.

Some of the videos have been seen on tour as part of Björk Digital, a travelling exhibition currently roaming around Brazil, but September's release of Vulnicura VR is the first time all visuals made for the album can be found in one place. Going through the journey in my booth required a pair of HTC Vive controllers, with which I chose 'tracks' by aiming toward annotated spheres, each pick seeing me jump in space to another part of the landscape. 

Completing the kit was a pair of headphones and a HTC headset; as I put the latter on I catch the original Vulnicura album cover behind me, Björk watching over me in a head-garment of her own as designed by Maiko Takeda, the fantastical sort also associated with co-creative director of the project and long-time collaborator James Merry.

The British artist was on hand to guide me through the world he and the avant-pop legend worked on, one which saw James move away from his transmutative headpieces and masks to pick up a new trade in virtual reality craft.

"We didn't have a masterplan for this," James tells me, valiantly beating the jet lag from his recent Iceland-to-London-via Mexico journey. "It’s been more of a cumulative, rolling kind of thing.

"As VR was developing," he explains, "we were making new videos with new different technologies. The first one we made, Stonemilker, was literally before one complete 360 camera had even been made yet."

Having worked with the singer for over a decade, James has gotten a good feel for Björk's relationship with the latest technology, one that's continued into the digital spectacle of her current Cornucopia live show, as based around the more recent Utopia album.

"With this project it was never, 'Oh, VR’s hot at the moment, let’s make VR videos.' Björk's reaction to technology is always quite instinctual and emotive, so, I think when she first tried VR it felt very isolated, and I think she saw the overlap with this album."

James considers the visual experience as one matching the bleakly grandiose tones of Vulnicura, its VR twin the chance for her "to go into an airless, claustrophobic digital world and 'perform' this heartbreak opera in that context," as he puts it.

Still from the incredible Family experience

Stepping myself into that world, I felt far from isolated; proceedings were more full of space and life than other VR experiences I've entered, the sort which one would describe as airless and claustrophobic and little else.

Moving between overwhelming sights and the simple trance of having multiple Björks serenading me on the beach, Vulnicura VR must surely be one of the most emotional uses of virtual reality to date.

"There were people crying in Australia when using the headset," James remembers as he looks back to when Björk Digital went Down Under. "Some people were screaming and dancing and trying to grab Björk. Everyone has different reactions each time."

This didn't surprise the artist as such; as he tells me later by email, the approach in the project often considered the emotion first before anything else.

"For this sort of content and the subject matter of the album, it was important to get that side of it right. We made certain tweaks along the way that helped to heighten whatever feeling or emotion we were trying to convey for that particular song, whether it be joy, sadness, claustrophobia or euphoria.

"For example, Björk spent some time resizing and scaling the dimensions of the digital cave within Black Lake, purposefully making it quite uncomfortably narrow. And at the end of Notget she was clear that it had to be euphoric and explosive, a triumph of love over death, so we had the avatar expand and grow and burst into bright blinding lights."

The effects were achieved with constant feedback and tweaking in the editing phase, a diligence that applied just as importantly to the audio aspect of the experience.

"Björk really made sure that the sound in this is as amazing as it can be in VR. We basically had to invent new ways of mastering and mixing audio for VR because I believe the stems are usually normally unmastered, and then you master them together.

"Normally in a game engine you put the stems in and the engine does it in real-time, but that would fuck with all the balances and mastering that Björk had done on the album.

"So, Mandy Parnell, the mastering engineer, and Martin Korth, spent months and months with her in Iceland, where the solution was essentially mastering all the stems in some amazing 360° way. This meant when they’re mixed real-time in the engine, it’s all already mastered whilst still allowing for a real-time audio experience."

While James admits he's not too much of an expert in the audio side of things, he's convinced that sound is as essential to vision when it comes to VR.

"Normally in two dimensions we’re told what to look at by an editor or a director, if you look at it from a cinematic sense. But in VR I think sound is the editor. It’s like, 'Hey, look over here. Okay, look behind you now.' 

"I believe the more stuff that’s done in VR, that kind of interactive sound design is going to be more important."

This audio emphasis will extend to all things VR, not just those with a musical basis like Vulnicura VR,  an immersion borne out of both an LP and series of music videos, the latter format of which James says is the perfect medium for virtual reality.

"Even for me, I can’t spend that long with VR before it bothers me. That's why I think a music video is the perfect medium for VR: a really high-definition, three to four-minute packet where you can enter another world and be surrounded by it, knowing that at the end of it you can just take everything off and you're done with it."

Vulnicura VR is out now on Steam. The installation at Otherworld runs until January 1st 2020.

Read next: Björk's 12 most creatively inspiring videos of all time

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