Welcome to the social.
Welcome to the social. Wave

I couldn’t wait to write an absolutely scathing review of Justin Bieber’s Thursday night virtual concert. The pop star donned a mo-cap suit that translated his movement onto a digital avatar in various CG environments, dancing to a soundtrack of a few of his hits while a Sims-looking virtual crowd cheered. The show was broadcast as a video livestream, about a half hour in length.

When it was over, I was stunned to realize that I didn’t hate it. At least, I don’t think I did. It’s hard to be sure.

That’s because it’s hard to tell exactly how much of the event was smoke and mirrors. Was Justin actually singing, or lip-syncing to a pre-recorded track? (His voice sounded awfully pristine, and he was never out-of-breath.) Was his motion captured live, or were we watching a recording? Chat bubbles from viewers appeared throughout the stream, but were they genuine or pre-written by event organizers?

Then again, maybe none of that matters — I don’t need to know how a magician saws a lady in half to enjoy a magic show. The show was fun. The audience was happy. And maybe in the near future, even if the pandemic ends and giant in-person concerts are once again safe to attend, this is increasingly how we’ll experience “live” music.

Ever since Facebook/Meta’s announcement, tech companies have been scrambling to attach the label “metaverse” to VR stuff with a level of enthusiasm I haven’t seen since they discovered candy-colored plastic shells on electronic consumer devices in 1999. Beware of any company or person promising the metaverse — it’s a boundless concept, an idea with meaning that shifts from person to person.

The Bieber concert, organized by a company called Wave and made possible through technology developed by another company called Maestro, was careful in its marketing language. It was billed as “virtual,” and I only heard the word “metaverse” used once. It was used by a preshow host named Seena who, while hyping up the audience, noted that “Justin has gotta get warmed up before he hits the metaverse.”

It’s sentences like those that seem to bend the mind a bit — what exactly are we talking about here? Warmed up how? Is he going into a TRON machine? Seena did her best to set expectations, but virtual pop star concerts are such a new and evolving experience that it’s hard to prepare. (Arianna Grande’s recent Fortnite concert was a particularly mind-bending experience, a sort of virtual playable roller coaster set to music.) I expected that we were about to see a pre-recorded CG music video livestream, and that it would be completely disappointing. I was wrong.

To their credit, Wave has created a fairly engaging experience. The show was indeed a video livestream — viewers peered through a window, unable to control the camera, and they had no avatar to control. There were moments of interactivity in the form of a fast-flowing chat and occasional button-mashing opportunities: “CLICK TO SHOW JUSTIN SOME LOVE” read one overlay, and viewers could choose between three heart-shaped icons to poke. The hearts could be seen floating into the concert scene, creating the impression that the audience was engaging with the performer as they would with lighters held aloft in olden times. But were they truly interacting? For all my mashing, I never saw a heart with my username appear on screen.

Fans were able to appear in the concert via Zoom.
Fans were able to appear in the concert via Zoom. Wave

A particularly effective gimmick was the “SEND JUSTIN YOUR LIGHT” feature. At certain points, a health bar appeared on the left-hand side of the screen, and viewers were encouraged to button-mash to fill the meter and advance to the next phase of the concert. In no way do I believe that feature was real: It would be insane to risk the total derailment of the show based on a technical measure of audience enthusiasm. But even at an old-fashioned live show — and I hate to break this to you — performers aren’t really asking “how you doin’ Cleveland” because they genuinely want to know. Sometimes it’s fun just to cheer for the sake of cheering.

Periodically, a human version of Justin appeared next to the CG show, swaddled in a tight black mo-cap suit with a head-mounted camera translating his real-life movements and expressions onto the avatar. That technology seemed genuine enough: The performer’s motion was accurately reflected in CG, and there were charming little glitches like the model’s face going completely slack whenever real-life Justin’s hand blocked the camera.

I’m not convinced that concerts like these are the true future of music shows, but I have no doubt that the technology will find SOME application in our day-to-day lives. It’s a bit clunky right now — the head-mounted camera reminds me of those old photos of telephone switchboard operators with large chest-mounted mouthpieces in the 1940s. Just as that tech eventually shrank into sleek white earbuds, Justin’s cumbersome rig will probably one day be unobtrusive and fashionable.

Futurist nerds are already happily playing with this tech. With a bit of expertise, a home user could put on a concert just like Justin’s right now — in fact, hobbyists are currently tinkering with applications that go far beyond it. (My favorite is a VR skateboard that you can ride by sticking your real-life tongue in the direction you wish to travel.)

Does anyone want this, though? Well, judging by the enthusiasm of the chat, Justin’s fans were more than happy to join him for this free concert. (A canny move by Wave, which no doubt just saw an astronomical surge in their number of active users.) The chat was delighted by last night’s concert, and although I feel no particular fandom for Justin, it was fun to keep one eye on his light show while I scrolled Twitter. Afterwards, I felt like a dad waiting in a car in the parking lot of a concert venue, happy to see that the youngsters had a good time.

Seeing your favorite performer prance around in virtual environments is certainly novel. But I wonder how long the novelty will last.