No one wants onlookers at a VR concert

Image: Midjourney invited by MIXED

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A study examines when visitors to virtual concerts feel uncomfortable and which element particularly promotes immersion.

How much realism does it take to make VR concertgoers feel like they’re attending a real event? Spanish researchers asked themselves this question and tried to capture the feelings of VR partygoers in a study.

The results show that virtual audiences at VR concerts can have a greater impact on users than on-stage performance, and that being alone among strangers in VR is no fun. But the experiment has weaknesses.

Researchers recreate live Dire Straits concert in virtual reality

The University of Barcelona recreated a live performance by rock band Dire Straits in virtual reality for the study. The ten-minute clip from a 1983 concert features a rendition of what is probably their best-known hit, “Sultans of Swing.”

Unlike immersive VR concerts like that of the Bastille group, where only a video is embedded in a VR environment, here a virtual version of the group performs on stage. The audience is also made up of virtual people.

For the study, a total of 26 subjects were fitted with VR headsets and found themselves approximately sixth in front of the virtual stage during the VR concert. All attendees attended the VR concert alone and stood at a fixed location surrounded by animated fans in the audience.

After the event, all participants wrote down their subjective perceptions. In particular, they were asked to refer to their feelings during the concert, to note their movements and those of the public, and to record the aspects favoring immersion as well as those which were rather disturbing.

VR spectators were afraid of the public

During the study, the researchers increased the quality of animations, lighting, and ambient sounds, which also included conversations between the virtual guests.

They also added an interaction option: if participants looked at a virtual person in their vicinity, there was a high probability that this person would return the gaze with a smile for one to three seconds.

Das animierte Publikum sorgte mit seinen Blicken bei Nutzer:innen für Unbehagen.

The lively audience made users feel uncomfortable with their appearance. | Image: University of Barcelona

The researchers actually speculated that reactions such as eye contact with animated characters would heighten the subjects’ perception of reality. However, most attendees felt discouraged by the reactions of the VR audience.

In their field reports, both male and female participants described their discomfort. Some excerpts from their reports:

  • “…every time I turned around, the people closest to me stopped watching the concert and turned their attention to me. I might have imagined it, but it was still kind of scary”
  • “When I turned to someone, they stared at me until I turned around, which was a bit unsettling.”
  • “Every time I looked at the woman to my right and the woman to my left a little behind me, they would turn to look at me and stare at me for the time I would expect a friend to stare at me. Because ‘they are strangers to me, I wouldn’t expect them to recognize my looks or just look for a second with their eyes. Turning their bodies and staring at me for so long made me feel bad. ‘ease’.
  • “The applause didn’t feel right to me. It was like it was also coming out of the guitar amps in the room like the music. I expected it to sound much louder and closer to me”.
  • “The crowd kept further away than expected.”
  • “At no time did I really have the feeling of being at a real concert. Starting with the band, I missed the interaction with the audience as well as within the band itself”.
  • “The crowd seemed too far away – like it was a socially distanced gig, which appealed to me.”

However, the virtual audience wasn’t just disturbing because of their obvious stares. Although none of the characters reacted to the human participants in the first part of the study or during the entire concert, some still felt observed afterwards.


Of course, these impressions may depend on the application used, which in this case is not particularly high-quality graphically (see end of article).

Lack of diversity and movement kills the mood

Another major criticism among male and female subjects was that the audience was made up exclusively of virtual women. A circumstance that constantly caused irritation and disturbed the immersion.

The audience’s inability to move to the stage, inappropriate crowd movement and noise, and the band’s lack of mobility have also been criticized as disruptive to immersion.

On a positive note, many liked the spatial sound of the live music and the noise from the audience. This gave test subjects the feeling of being in the audience in front of a real stage. Overall, the The VR gig was better received by men than women.

Audience behavior was more important to the immersion than what happened on stage

Virtual audiences were more likely to provide an immersive experience when applause, dancing, and cheering were synchronized with the music and dynamics of Dire Straits’ VR performance. When this was not the case, users were disconnected from the experience.

Overall, the researchers found that users’ individual moods were dominated by reactions to the audience rather than the group. Being alone among virtual strangers at a concert also seemed like a kind of social threat to some attendees.

However, the design of the study is quite questionable, as it is not a realistic reconstructed concert. The static and stationary virtual viewers remind me of the VR version of Emily Wants To Play. I don’t need a study to know that having someone staring at me all the time for no reason freaks me out.

The results of this study are more like self-fulfilling prophecies, based on the lackluster implementation described and seen in the video: If I create a technically flawed, one-dimensional virtual environment, what do you think the reception will be like?

Still, social VR developers could take away a point or two from the study, such as the relevance of audience behavior for immersion.

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