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Viacom’s Take on Virtual Reality: Room-Scale, Original and Fun

Viacom owns a lot of intellectual property across its family of TV networks, ranging from kids-friendly characters on Nickelodeon to “South Park” to the ever-evolving cast of reality TV stars on MTV. But when the a team within company’s R&D unit Viacom Next started to dabble in virtual reality, they didn’t look at any of these characters.

“The moment you use IP, there are too may stakeholders involved,” said Viacom Next Senior Director Rub Ruffler during a recent interview with Variety. Instead, the Next team opted to strike partnerships with artists and musicians to create original virtual reality experiences with a music twist.

One of the first results of these  partnerships is “Chocolate,” a VR music video from Tyler Hurd that premiered at Sundance earlier this year. And this week, Viacom Next is giving audiences at SXSW in Austin, Texas a first peek at “The Melody of Dust,” a VR experience that straddles the lines between music video, game and interactive composition.

“The Melody Of Dust,”which is slated to be released soon after the show, puts the players into a dream-like room that prominently features a kind of miniature tornado. Users can then pick up a variety of objects — a rose, a vase or a bottle — and toss them into the airflow, where they start to float in circles. Every object starts to play a distinct sound as soon as it enters the tornado, and sooner or later, the sounds start to make up melodies and rhythms.

All of the sounds for “Meldoy of Dust” were recorded and composed by electronica musician Hot Sugar, who is known for his field-recording-like approach towards sampling everyday objects. And each sound matches the key and tempo of the others, making it easy to layer them and create a vast amount of music, all within VR. “It’s like the first VR music album,” said Viacom next Creative Director David Liu.

So why music, as opposed to more narrative projects? Liu called it a bit of a “happy accident” that Viacom Next started to work on music projects like “Meldoy of Dust” and “Chocolate” first, but Ruffler also argued that it helped the team to experiment with the possibilities of the medium: “In a music video, you have a little bit more freedom to be abstract.”

That being said, Viacom Next is also looking at narrative projects, as well as social experiences, for future VR endeavors. The team aims to release around 8 projects this year, and will likely produce half of them in-house, while the other half will come from outside collaborators.

What you won’t see any time soon are simple 360-degree videos that would work on mobile headsets. “Our bar right now is positional tracking,” said Ruffler as a way of referencing high-end headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift that allow users to move through a room, and have their movements recreated in VR.

Viacom Next can afford being this selective because its parent company is in no rush to monetize its creations. The company isn’t expecting to make money with VR this year, said Liu, and probably not next year either. “We just want to raise our profile.”


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