Whilst I am not really a musician I do really like to try and make sounds with instruments, especially an electric guitar. Back in January 2020 I wrote a piece on this site about Rocksmith, using a real instrument attached to a game engine to help learn and actually play. There are other interesting ways to engage with musical instruments, especially the guitar, and history seemed to be repeating itself this week, (I don’t just mean news repeating the 2006 wave with the Facebook commitment to the/a Metaverse) with a new VR guitar game experience. I thought I would explain the provenance of this sort of new experience first.
What a Racquet!
Last century, in the 1990’s a quirky PC game with a strange parallel port peripheral called “Quest for Fame” (originally Born to Rock) capture my and a few friends imagination. The game was actually published by IBM, and as we had all started working for that company it was pretty amazing to have a big corporate like that publishing a game. The game featured Aerosmith, in person and in their music too. What was this amazing experience? Well the peripheral was a small plastic plectrum that responded to it being hit or strummed, i.e. the opposite of an actual plectrum that does the strumming on strings. You made the plectrum vibrate in time to the music to score points. The best way to do this was with…. a tennis racquet. Yes, rocking along not to air guitar but to playing a tennis racquet like one, which was a perfectly normal thing to do, we certainly messed with these pretend guitars growing up. The thing was it felt like you were really rocking, and it was very energetic. “Play Stepenwolf” would resound out form a big cartoon bouncer as you then launched into Born to be wild, often we would sing along too.
Move on a decade and the home consoles brought us an update to the concept, this time games like Guitar Hero and Rockband introduced plastic guitars, with buttons not strings and a rocking stumming switch with which to follow the music with. Not only that but they brought in keyboards, bass guitar and even more importantly drum kits. The drums are probably the closest to the real thing, the simplification of guitar chords to a couple of buttons compared to actually having to hit the snare, bass and cymbals in time was quite a diverse set of skills, hence we formed a family and friend band. Some people loved drums, other guitar. Also of course now there was a lead singer and a karaoke style approach to the whole tune. Our poor neighbours! I was lucky enough to be doing my Super G33k TV slot on The Cool Stuff Collective when Rockband 3 came out and I got to play “live” with a monkey on drums and lead presenter, hilarious and talented, Sy Thomas on keytar. All recorded, I might add, in an MTV studio. Raaawk!
ITV’s Saturday morning The Cool Stuff Collective kids TV show 2010.
A crowded space
A few years ago a new twist of Rockband emerged, this time inside the Oculus Rift VR headset on PC, with RockbandVR. Using one of the plastic guitars the application got you to strap one of the hand controllers onto the neck of the guitar, enabling it to figure out where the guitar was in physical space. This meant when you put on the headset you saw a virtual guitar, but felt the real one, pretty well lined up, certain enough to play. This really ramped up the sense of being there on stage. Even having to turn and face the virtual drummer and nod your head to start the song. The crowd of NPC’s would whoop and cheer, lighting would dazzle. It was a really fun, and sweaty, experience.
Rhythm action FTW
VR has now generated a whole new genre of rhyta action game with the leader in that being Beat Sabre. Swinging light sabres as musically timed blocks coming at you. It, and Pistol Whip et al. are really great experiential music games and exercise regimes. Dancing, arm waving, punching, ducking, stepping etc they are all there. Of course they are not rocking a guitar.
Not hands free, hands only
So that brings us to the present day and the latest incarnation of rocking a virtual guitar. This month the game/experience Unplugged arrived. This does not use any plastic peripherals, just a pure air guitar. It relies on the new hand and finger tracking that VR headsets are able to do. You play notes and chords with sets of fingers moving them up and down the imaginary neck, whilst strumming in the vicinity of the strings on the virtual guitar body. It is not a static guitar, it moves with you, allowing a bit of rock and roll flair. I have not played it enough yet to say if it’s an essential purchase for all, but with the lineage I just described, I just had to get it didn’t I. If you will excuse me now, the crowd a calling for an encore, thank you Basingstoke, good night.