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The VPick

Virtually Jamming

"Air guitarists" have been jamming in a virtual realm (their imaginations) for decades. Now with the help of a CD-ROM they can pursue virtual rock 'n' roll immortality. Does this technology hold any significance for the rest of us?

by Ralph Lombreglia

Quest For Fame: Be A Virtual Rock Legend
Featuring Aerosmith
2 CD-ROMs & "Virtual Pick" input device
Platforms: Macintosh & Windows
Developer: Virtual Music Entertainment, Inc.
Publisher: IBM

January 22, 1997

Electricity, literal voltage, now surges through many art forms -- in their presentation, certainly, and often in their conception and production. But music has been the one most transformed by electronics, and the beginning of that transformation, the place where the angels or the devils first plugged the wires in, was the guitar. In the hands of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, the electric guitar quickly rose from the rhythm section to become one of the essential soloing voices of modern jazz. Soon after that, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, and countless others used the loud, expressive, thrilling new instrument to create electric urban blues, which in turn became the basis of rock 'n' roll, with the electric guitar as its signature element.

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In the course of all this, the electric guitarist became a vivid popular icon of the artist-hero, with the instrument itself approaching the status of a holy object. In the 1960s, Eric Clapton's lead guitar style moved some of his fans to call him "God," and I have more than once heard it said of the classic electric guitar designed by Leo Fender, "Stratocasters are God." Sales of electric guitars and amplifiers have steadily increased for decades, but legions of young fellows (and they remain primarily fellows) can be found in bedrooms, bars, parties, and rock arenas listening to loud rock 'n' roll and communing with the archetype, sans instrument, by playing "air guitar."

Now IBM, once the very archetype of computing itself, is bringing a modicum of "virtual reality" to exponents of air-guitar by publishing Quest For Fame, by Virtual Music Entertainment of Andover, MA. It can be said without exaggeration that Quest For Fame is a groundbreaking hybrid of several kinds of products. It's a multimedia production designed to glorify the music and personalities of a well-known rock band (Aerosmith), but it's also a game based on a story-line -- the pilgrim's progress of a would-be rock guitar hero. Most interestingly, it's a package of technical innovations in both software and hardware, the hardware being a plastic "virtual guitar pick" that plugs into the printer or modem port of your computer and acts as the input device (like a mouse or joystick) for the game. The player strums this device against a hard surface -- conveniently, the stringed face of a tennis racquet, favored instrument of air-guitarists, is said to be ideal -- to activate synthesized guitar "samples" tailored to the song you happen to be playing along with in the game. Given the present limitations of multimedia development tools and most playback hardware, this is all a pretty neat trick. On a technical level, the imaginative creators of Quest For Fame accomplish something fresh and impressive using only two CDs and a piece of blue plastic with a wire coming out of it.

The emphasis, appropriately, is on fun, and the tone is usually tongue-in-cheek. You, the aspiring guitarist, live in West Feedback, a city populated by graphical cartoons and photographed humans living side-by side. The mingling of imagistic realms works because the mix is brought off convincingly enough to create a comic surreality appropriate to the fantasy-life that is the product's "subject." Your spiritual guide along life's hard path of riffs and licks is a dude in a yellow jumpsuit who carries a toy digital guitar and does not hesitate to tell you when your playing is lame or cool. Audience members, club owners, and rival musicians try to intimidate you, and Aerosmith's videotaped members are comically skeptical of your pretensions ("c'mon, kid, let's see what you got") until you score high enough to win their grudging praise. Your favorite character is likely to be the female lead singer of your own garage band, who looks like the very reason you wanted to play guitar in the first place, and who becomes warmer and more interested in you the better you strum your old banjo.

But at some bedrock level Quest For Fame also takes itself seriously and tries to embody the guitar-hero story in a meaningful way. The various venues of West Feedback do correspond to the typical real-life stops along this particular heroic journey, among them: your bedroom, where the wall-posters come alive if you practice your heart out; the garage, where your band rehearses; a crummy roadhouse called The Roadkill Grill, where cartoon bikers force you to play Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild"; a blues club (Snooky's), where old cartoon bluesmen fling a handful of grooves at you; a banquet-room gig for the Fraternal Order of Yak, where your burning licks literally vaporize the waltzing seniors in their fezzes and party dresses; a recording studio, where Aerosmith, if you have impressed them, invite you to lay down some tracks; and finally a stadium, where, if you've played a consummate game, you "win" by jamming onstage with your heroes.

"Playing a consummate game" means strumming the VPick with enough accuracy and musicality to trigger the available lead-guitar sounds at the right points in any given bar of a tune. A graphic display at the bottom of most screens (the "REKG," or Rock EKG) shows green spikes where the correct strums should fall, and blue spikes where you actually strummed. You can turn the REKG display off and fly blind, in which case you'll probably need years to finish playing the game. Even with the REKG display, it's not easy to hit licks where they belong, and it gets less obvious and physically harder as you increase the difficulty level.

Yes, I said "strumming with enough musicality," even though there's nothing melodic or harmonic about what you do with the VPick. You don't choose which notes or chords are to be played, only where they fall. It's all rhythmic. Yet the guitar is in part a percussive, rhythmic instrument, and so the way you "play" with the VPick does have some fundamental musical validity, some definite relationship to the guitar in real life. You could say that the strumming of a VPick is similar to the "twitch" of a joystick in the shoot-'em-up games, but in one case you're reacting to music and in the other you're reacting to violence and guns.

And in this lies the most intriguing aspect of Quest For Fame. Pretending to be merely fun, a game, a goof, an innocent diversion, the product encourages the development of skills that are genuinely musical -- specifically, feeling and expressing rhythmic patterns and shapes, and listening to what's going on around you while you play. Despite its jokiness and self-parody, Quest For Fame's clever innovations suggest one real artistic value of software-based "virtual" environments -- that they can be "places" in which users are creative and productive precisely because they are entertained, diverted, enchanted. Quest For Fame is certainly not like playing a real guitar in a real place with real people. But I can easily imagine an air-guitarist being provoked by this product to get a real guitar and really learn to play.

. . .

Digital products, like all technologies, reflect and magnify our basest as well as our noblest impulses. Since so much work in the computer industry is market-driven in the worst sense of the term -- with the short-sighted grab for consumer dollars as the prime motivation and with executives' and investors' eyes fixed on the spreadsheet numbers for the current fiscal quarter -- we should expect to see plenty of what's most base and cheap about human impulses. Unfortunately, some people will judge the technologies themselves (and their fitness for art) on this basis, without questioning the larger economic situation. Even worse, some of the most innovative work will not get funded simply because it can't be made to pay off in three or four fiscal quarters, or -- most insidious -- because it threatens the revenue stream of existing product lines. None of this is new; it's just the history of automobiles all over again, and I can't think of a more damning comparison.

So let's finish by returning to something that really matters -- music. To make a music synthesizer sound so much like a violin or a flute that it's indistinguishable from the real thing is undoubtedly a fascinating technical challenge. From an R & D standpoint, it's a worthy activity. But artistically speaking, it's the least interesting thing you can do with the technology. The most interesting thing is to make sights and sounds heretofore unseen, unheard, and previously impossible. Artists don't simply imitate reality, they extend it, or they extend our perception of it, which is functionally the same thing. Where computer simulations or visualizations help us "see" or experience some aspect of reality otherwise imperceptible, they're vitally important to the future of humanity. Where virtual experiences merely pander to the mean desire to get something for nothing, to avoid paying a price . . . well, the best that can be said is we might learn something in the process. Clever technologists and designers need to do what artists have always done: capture an audience with pleasure and entertainment, and then teach them something and maybe even change their lives. If they can do that, they might enhance human consciousness and get funding for the next quarter, too.

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