The following guest post marks the December 25th, 2022 free release of experimental PC-based Rift VR music project Lambchild Superstar: Making Music in the Menagerie of the Holy Cow from Within & Horizon Studios. Submitted to UploadVR over email, the post is co-authored by Within co-founder Chris Milk and OK Go singer Damian Kulash Jr.
A pair of Lemmings hurl themselves down a staircase lined with drums, and their tumble bangs out a surprisingly infectious beat. Nearby, a parade of keytar-toting Moles blindly stumble as they join in with a synth hook. Behind you, there are tanks of harmonica-wielding Blowfish. To your side, a Kangaroo shadow-boxing a Hummingbird, an electric Eel fitted with guitar pickups, and a Cow on mushrooms, farting sonic rainbows.
It’s joyful, psychedelic chaos, but somehow it all syncs up, and the cacophony magically aligns to become… a pop song. Is this the perfect pop song? It might be. And not just because it’s such an earworm, but because you made it. You, the chosen one, the Lambchild Superstar. You did this. And when you’re done, you can download the mp3 and send it to your friends.
That’s a small taste of what happens when you dawn your Ovine Elvis jumpsuit in the new VR experience Lambchild Superstar. Download the app here for free.
‘How does something like this exist?’ you may ask. By all accounts, it shouldn’t. It’s an incredibly complex project, and it’s still only halfway done in our eyes. But when we started making it six years ago, the bright, beckoning future of VR was all about high-end headsets tethered to wildly powerful PCs. In the intervening years, the world has shifted its gaze squarely on the more nimble, wireless Quest headsets. The time is now – now or never – to throw open Lambchild’s mystical barn doors and invite you in.
Now, before another six years goes by, and VR has been completely eclipsed by neuro implants.
So, Lambchild Superstar is now yours for free; it’s our gift to the VR community. Strap on your Oculus Rift or Meta Quest + a PC, dawn your virtual jumpsuit and let loose the glory of your inner superstar. (A Quest connected to a gaming PC should work great if you’ve got a link cable or an air bridge.) We bestow this (strangely overwrought) virtual reality experience on you in the hopes that you will pay it forward.
Go forth and bestow your song upon the world.
‘You didn’t answer my question,’ you might still be asking yourself. ‘Who made this, and why?’
We are two detail-obsessed music video directors (maybe it’s OCD?) named Damian Kulash and Chris Milk. Damian’s the singer in OK Go and the creative force behind their consistently groundbreaking music videos. Chris (currently writing in the 3rd person) is a marginally superlatively (Damian’s edit) talented director whose genre bending work with Arcade Fire, Johnny Cash, U2, and the artist formerly known as Kanye West eventually led to futuristic new-tech art installations, which in turn led him to co-found the VR company Within.
We’ve been friends and admirers for years and have always hoped to collaborate. So in 2015, we set out to make an OK Go video in VR. This was a terrible idea, we quickly discovered, because the more we brainstormed, the clearer it became: watching OK Go videos is really fun but actually being in one is generally the opposite of fun. It always involves some feat of endurance or arithmetic or risky behavior – some long investment to arrive at the short burst of joy in the final product.
So we scrapped the music video idea and asked ourselves this: how do we share the part of our lives in which we, the people making the thing, experience joy, awe, and wonder? We’re always trying to build them into everything we make – they’re what we chase all day long – but can we use VR to let someone else feel the part of the process that is so magical for us?
It’s the fundamental alchemy of creativity. When you put two colors next to each other, or two chords, or two words, you get exactly what you expect: two colors, two chords, two words. But every once in a while, you get a shocking blast in your gut. Half of you is a six-year-old jumping on your bed, and the other half is a teenager driving dad’s car way too fast down the empty street along the beach and making out with your fantasy crush in the parking lot. That’s what we wanted to give people: the strange, gleeful magic of a few chords suddenly becoming a song.
The problem is, that feeling is pretty rare, and composing a song is a damn hard thing to do. So our goal was this: use modern bleeding-edge technologies like AI and VR to help point you toward satisfying musical choices and to make it fun to just play. All you need to do is explore the wondrous world around you, and your choices will create a song from scratch that is 100% your creation. No musical ability or special training required – just the talent to identify what you like when you hear it. There should be no intimidating bass guitar with all those strings, frets, and knobs; instead, we went with a dozen octopuses inviting you to scat a pattern into an old-fashioned horn.
It turns out, as always, that simple ideas are not so simple. Years of work went into nudging this weird world toward existence, and probably over a hundred inspired minds pitched in. It’s easiest to think of as two layers. On the surface is the incredibly intricate design and animation of the characters, instruments, and world. This was done by an incredible team of artists, 3D modelers, and animators at Within, led by the legendary Jona Dinges. Underneath the hood, far harder to see, is a musical creation engine that uses machine learning to analyze the most popular 10,000 songs of the last 40 years. It listens to your choices and suggests ingredients for your personal magic spell of a song, which it believes, at least statistically speaking, will have all the feels. The app and music engine were built by Horizon’s Studio in London with the help of Hook Theory, musical superproducer Ken Sluiter, and the guys in OK Go.
We’re both delusional perfectionists (a potent combination), so we kept pushing forward, even as we learned the insane scale of this project’s hurdles. For instance, Lambchild was built as a two-person collaborative experience, in which both Lambchilderen make music together. It was awesome, but awesomely complicated to implement. And there are endless additional layers of musical expression (and animal psychedelia) which we spent months chasing. Do we think you should be able to give your song a dramatic techno drop by tickling the inebriated rave hippopotamus? Of course we do; that goes without saying. But the unrelenting march of time (and the boring reality of money) don’t share our opinion on this, sadly.
This was one of the most challenging projects we’ve tackled, and we’ve both tackled some pretty tricky ones. We are incredibly grateful to all the contributors and collaborators. Oculus gave us seed money which we used up many years ago, and Within kindly stepped in to keep us going since.
Turns out six years is how long a collaborative side project takes when it’s so big it needs the full-time attention of the collaborators. And we can’t claim we’ve been full-time. Since we started this, Damian has had twins, co-directed (with his wife) his first movie (The Beanie Bubble, out soon on Apple+), and finished (almost all of) a new OK Go album. Chris created the VR exercise and wellness app Supernatural with his team at Within (soon to be part of Meta), and got a second dog. But we’re happy with this weird thing, and we hope it finds some people out there who will use it to unlock their own joy, awe, and wonder.
Today we set the Lambchild free. If you make a song and post it, please hashtag #lambchild so we can hear it too.
Chris Milk and Damian Kulash Jr