Unexpected architecture, experimental music, physics-based interactions, and a serene environment. Taken individually, each of these components holds the promise of a compelling VR experience, but collectively, they add up to an artistic reimagining of what the medium can and should be. The latest offering from product studio Planeta, Drops pushes the boundaries of VR while simultaneously allowing people with no formal training to produce polyphonic rhythms and music—and we’re excited to share the experience today on Rift.
In today’s installment of our VR Visionaries series, we sit down with Drops Designer Dan Brewster to meditate on the making of this artistic playground.
What was the initial inspiration behind Drops?
Dan Brewster: A few things. In the winter of 2016, I was thinking a lot about toys for sensory play—the kind you might see at a pediatrician’s office. Think these guys or these. They’re complex physical systems bottled up in cute little packages, and playing with them hijacks some hind part of the mind in a way that can be deeply satisfying.
I’d also recently visited the island town of Naoshima in Japan and was blown away by the some of the spaces there. I hadn’t before had the experience of architecture having such a strong effect on my mood, and my immediate thought was, “These are the kinds of spaces we should be creating in VR.” One space in particular, created by Tadao Ando for Benesse House and consisting of an enclosed circle of water beneath a circle of open sky, felt perfectly suited to VR and inspired the environment of Drops.
How, if at all, has the project changed over time?
DB: The idea for Drops popped into my head more or less fully formed on a Sunday afternoon in January, and I built the first demo that same day. It consisted of a bunch of shapes scattered around a watery floor and not much else, but I showed it to my colleague Nick Dangerfield, and it was enough to get us excited. Over time, we worked to refine and add richness to the environment, to expand the range and quality of the objects and sounds, and to generally make Drops a deeper and more pleasurable experience, but the core stayed the same.
How would you define Drops? Is it a meditation app? A physics-based game? A musical simulation? Or something else entirely?
DB: Drops is a pleasant place to be, and it’s a nice way to spend time. It aims to be a glass of cool water on a hot day. If you want to create complex audiovisual sculptures and rhythms, then we’ve provided a bunch of tools that allow you to do so, but you can still enjoy it if you just want to mess around with physics somewhere nice. You’ll probably end up making something that sounds good even if you don’t mean to.
We believe that the act of composing with Drops is inherently meditative. We don’t ship with guided visualization tracks or breath timers, but watching balls bounce and flow through your composition, sitting back, tweaking, adjusting, listening, all those things grab something deep in your brain, giving you a little space to let go. The environment amplifies that effect, enclosing you while still allowing you to see open sky and hear the sounds of the natural world.
How does this project help break new ground in VR?
DB: As a studio, we’re very interested in the new possibilities for sound creation that VR opens up. Drops doesn’t emulate any sort of physical instrument—it’s its own sort of thing, and it’s a thing only possible in VR.
We’re also interested in restraint. We see a lot of experiences that take a sort of maximalist approach to VR—super visually and bodily stimulating. That can be exciting, but it’s also a bit draining, and the novelty wears off. With Drops, we wanted to make something that would feel restorative rather than draining, and a big part of that was keeping it visually and mechanically simple.
What does Drops mean for you personally?
DB: When I was first thinking about VR, my fantasy was to make a nice room to hang out in and then hang out in it. That’s what Drops is—it’s something I wanted to see in the world, a place I wanted to be. I’ve tried to expand that into a place that other people might want to be, too.
What kind of response have you seen while demoing the experience?
DB: People get stuck in it. I have to be cautious about demoing on my work machine because I know I may not be able to use it for a while once someone goes in. The most common thing we hear when someone takes the headset off is, “I could do that for hours.”
How did you go about creating the overall soundscape for Drops?
DB: I started with the place. You’re outside. There’s wind, there’s water, there’s grass, there’s sky. The sun rises and sets. The sounds followed very naturally—we used field recordings of wind and trees and birds and crickets because those are the sounds you would hear in this place.
For the initial set of shapes, we worked to keep things simple and comfortable. I was imagining playing with wooden blocks as a kid—knocks, clicks, and gentle thwacks. We used temple blocks and marimba, two-by-fours and plywood. Some flute to give it a satisfying high end, and an udu for the low.
DB: It was great. Both were immediately excited after seeing Drops for the first time (something we’ve seen a lot with musicians), and both had an immediate feel for what sounds would work. We matched sounds and shapes together collaboratively, sometimes creating sounds to match a particular shape, sometimes modifying a shape to match a sound.
Do you plan to release new sound libraries along with new shape sets over time? If so, will you work with new composers / artists on the expansions?
DB: Yes and yes! Hopefully a bunch. Because each shape can have unique functionality, new sets of shapes can do much more than add sounds to the mix, so expect to see some interesting stuff.
Will people be able to explore other people’s creations in Drops?
DB: Drops has a built-in video camera and microphone for recording video and audio of your compositions—you can of course share those files wherever you’d like. We’re also including a number of featured compositions at launch to give people a sense of what’s possible, and we plan to add a way for people to publish and share compositions. We’ll be featuring compositions from that pool as it grows.
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects on the horizon?
DB: Yessss. As a studio, we’re working on a number of projects, including an experience involving the work of a legendary musician, an Antarctic soundscape, and an ongoing partnership with a children’s hospital.
Personally, I’m super excited to see what people make with Drops and to continue to evolve it on that basis. I’m also interested in making something, could be an instrument, could be something else, on more of a serial or episodic basis. ... I’ll see where that goes.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Dan. We can’t wait to see what Planeta comes up with next.
— The Oculus Team