Concerts, VR, and How Technology Can Help Circumvent Sensory Overload

Not too long ago, one of my favourite musical artists Watsky was playing a couple of shows in London, not too far from where I live. Watsky is a slam poetry rapper, whose tracks combine the energy and fury of rock music, with fast paced lyrics about never giving up on pushing for your dreams, or coping with complex mental health topics. His music has over the past few years been hugely motivating for me in my day to day life.

I didn’t find out Watsky was playing tour dates in the UK until very last minute, which would normally not be too much of an issue. I love live music and, assuming I’ve got the funds, I’ll excitedly make an evening trip out to catch some music without too much thought. The problem is, the night he was performing, I was really struggling with my own mental health.

I am an adult living with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum condition which impacts various areas of my day to day life. I struggle with unexpected changes to routine, will often do repetitive verbal and movement based actions, and perhaps most notably I can often struggle with moderate sensory overload issues. Basically, my brain really struggles to filter out unimportant sensory information properly, so I often find environments with intense sensory information, or multiple sources of sensory information, quickly overwhelming.

Basically, the higher the number of unpredictable sensory inputs I have to handle at once, the higher odds of my brain getting hugely overwhelmed to the point I can’t function properly. The end result might be that I go non verbal, or on a more extreme end I might end up hitting at my own head and crying, rocking back and forth.

As you can imagine, live music concerts, particularly the kinds I enjoy going to as a fan of rock, punk, metal, ska, and other energetic, typically standing room only gig genres, can be a minefield of sensory information on the best of days. Other concert goers jumping, bumping, and jostling. Music up as loud as it can go. Smells of sweat and bear mixing. People spilling drinks, often over other attendees. Temperatures which cannot be altered. Even on a good day, a proper live gig can be a lot for me to handle.

This isn’t to say I can’t attend these kinds of live gigs, I just have to control factors where I can. I often wear earplugs if noise gets to much. I get up to the front barrier and hold on tight, so I know what physical touch sensations to expect on at least one side. I make sure I go on days where I’m handling my symptoms as well as possible.

On the day I learned of that particular show, I was already struggling with more intense than average autism symptoms. I reluctantly skipped out on the show. I knew that going on a bad mental health day wouldn’t be a good idea.

I was really gutted to have missed out on seeing Watsky play live, but this week something happened that helped resolve some of those feelings that I had missed out on my chance to experience what his live performance was like. He published a recording of a show from that tour to Youtube. Not only that, the video was available in VR, at 4K and 60FPS.

Now, Watsky is far from the first person to upload a concert recording to the internet in VR, a quick cursory search of YouTube throws up VR concert videos for Depeche Mode and Post Malone among many others. However, this is the first time a show I missed out on getting to attend, but really wanted to see, has had a VR concert which I had the technology available to watch. So, I took a bit of time out of my day to check out a VR concert.

Instantly, I realised something I hadn’t realised before actually trying out a VR concert for myself. A lot of the sensory issues I had with live concerts are simply not factors enjoying that same show at home by yourself. Too hot? You can open a window, put on a fan, even take your top off entirely if it’s super warm. If you’re home alone watching, there’s zero chance of getting bumped around, or having someone else’s lukewarm beer spilled on you. The volume is adjustable, and you can pause for breaks when you need to.

It’s not free fully of sensory issues, a VR headset can get a bit warm and tight on the face after a while, but it sure is much easier to accommodate for than live venue factors.

While I’ve previously watched standard 2D recordings of live gigs on TV or my PC, it’s undeniable that being in VR made a huge different to how much I felt a part of the show, like I had actually been there, and how much more willing I was to play along with the spectacle as if I was there.

I sang along to songs, with headphones loud enough I could barely hear my own voice. I head banged, fist pumped, and arm swayed along with the other guests. I committed to acting like I was there, even though I was alone at home. I felt like I hadn’t missed out so much.

VR concerts are certainly no 100% replacement for live concerts; getting to feel that real human hustle and bustle, as well as knowing the real performer is right there, are two parts of a live performance that no recording, no matter how realistic, will ever replace. It can’t replace the mad rush for the barrier, or the friends you might make in line waiting for the show to open, but it does fill a need I didn’t realise existed, and one I wish was available for more concerts.

There are sometimes days I can’t do concerts, because of the sensory intensity involved. If I could pay a small fee to watch the concert from home, either live or at a later date, in the immersion of VR, i would feel a little less left out that my disability got in the way of me trying to live my life.

Categories: Disability, Music