Inside a dirty warehouse, Joey Beltram’s 1990 classic Energy Flash is blaring at full pelt through a throng of ravers. The night-time journey here has been fraught but now, in the heat of the dance, it’s all about the music, energy and bass.
Despite all appearances, this isn’t an in-person party. Instead, it’s a rave in the Virtual Reality world of In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, an experience dreamed up by multimedia director Darren Emerson. Combining VR tech with 3D modelling, 360-degree video, animation and more, this hour-long immersion invites participants to wear a Meta Quest 2 VR headset, Subpac haptic vest, and hand controllers for one wild night. It may occur in a virtual world but it feels thrillingly real.
“When we put [the event] on in Amsterdam, we definitely had some people who were pretty high when they arrived,” laughs Darren. “We’ve found that the later it gets, the looser people are.”
We’re talking after I’d been through the rush of Repetitive Beats at Liverpool’s FACT. This experience, which follows exhibitions in Coventry, Texas’ SXSW and Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), takes you beyond conventional content. After the experience is up, you leave wondering where the party is at.
“One of the original Coventry acid house veterans came out after seeing it and said: ‘Fucking hell, I’m buzzing mate’,” continues Darren. “I wanted to create something that seems as real and possible. So when you enter the room, the fans, the headset, you wear a pack, it’s something you have to experience.”
Roots of Beats
Unveiled in the summer of 2022 at the Coventry Capital of Culture, the project was created by Darren’s East City Film company. Set up in a designated space where they are free to roam, participants are taken back to Coventry during 1989’s second Summer of Love – one of many UK towns and cities swept up by the acid house movement. From the onset, where dancers are swallowed into the groove of a huge vinyl record to waiting at a service station for instructions on where to find the rave, it’s full immersion in a brilliant night out.
Darren was too young to experience the halcyon days of dance music culture but he did enjoy some illicit party experiences as a student in the mid-90s.
“I went to university near the [UK’s] south coast so we would drive to illegal parties in forests and disused tunnels,” he says. “I used to love the sense of adventure, and a lot of my work is about going back to recontextualising things I observed as a young man.”
Darren and his company wanted In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats to take the typical formula of acid house documentaries into new territory. While many docs focus on talking heads giving their take on the times, he wanted to go far further.
“It’s always interesting to watch documentaries about rave culture,” says Darren. “But I’ve found myself wanting to be there, to hear and feel it. That’s where the idea to create something like this came from.”
“VR is constantly evolving. But despite the challenges, this is part of the fun. Experimentation and problem solving is definitely one of the most rewarding parts.”
The experience begins in the back of a virtual Peugeot before entering a bedroom full of flyers, DJs and MCs from Coventry’s Amnesia House collective recounting their takes on the time. As it progresses you head past police stations, service stations and pirate radio announcements before arriving at the warehouse. Although based in the West Midlands, In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats captures a universal nocturnal feeling.
“There are autobiographical elements but acid house was a collective shared experience,” says Darren. “Many people will have enjoyed something like this. The bass of the Subpac, sights and sounds really capture the nervous excitement of a night out.”
Darren and his team used 360-degree cameras to collate images, then edited them together across a linear timeline. In VR, users can be given six degrees of freedom that allows them to pick objects up and move within a space; an approach he was keen to add to the innovative mix.
“It was very challenging to devise the different scenes and make sure we had the right combination of techniques,” explains Darren. “The beginning is 3D modelling and game engine modelling. When you enter the record, there is a more cinematic experience with less rotational movement in the environment.”
He continues: “There’s motion capture in there, volumetric capture [where actors are filmed by an array of surrounding cameras to capture facial expressions], and animation. We did lots of research into 3D models and filming interviews. It’s a big team and you need to write it all, directing and producing it in a very hands-on way.”
Having worked with VR for eight years, including creating and directing Common Ground, an experience about London’s infamous Aylesbury Estate, the technology is rapidly evolving – which means opportunities and challenges in equal measure.
“When we first started, it was all a hack,” Darren says. “We’d film with GoPros, then we’d have the laborious task of piecing something together from individual video files. Now it’s much simpler and the software is full of useful plugins. I often get asked how to make good VR – it’s a combination of what’s possible versus understanding the language to tell a great story. Just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it will be good or even work.”
Recapturing the time
Despite the futurism of the experience, in certain sections, there’s a deliberate effort to make the visuals more aligned to how this period is remembered rather than how it actually was. Flyers and talking heads add to a sense of rave nostalgia amid memories of old videos, photos and friends.
“With the stills, the figment of the idea of the memory is better than seeing the actual memory and that kind of translates to most of the environments in how they are art directed,” says Darren. “The more realistic you make the bedroom in terms of fidelity, the less realistic it appears. We wanted to try and give it a VHS-esque look and feel.”
The Quest 2 headsets come with their own issues. Although powerful and capable of being used at home, the system updates require headsets to be reprogrammed and updated.
“Everything can be tricky in terms of formats and versioning, and these are things you take for granted with video,” Darren explains. “It’s constantly evolving. But in some ways, this is part of the fun. Experimentation and problem-solving is definitely one of the most rewarding parts.”
With plans for more installations in a variety of locations over the rest of the year, the touring capabilities of the show and its enjoyable subject matter make it imminently accessible.
Despite having experienced it thousands of times, Darren is still visibly excited by what he and his team have created.
“There are some moments when the visuals and sound come together and the lead developer and I would be so excited, we’d almost be jumping around. You could truly feel it. And that’s what great VR has to do.”
Learn more about In Pursuit Of Repetitive Beats at eastcityfilms.com
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