Immersive musical agency in virtual reality.

Thesis for NYU's Integrated Digital Media's Master's of Science. 2016.

For my master's thesis at NYU's Integrated Digital Media program, I looked at virtual reality as a potential avenue for novel musical experiences, and as a new tool for digital installations. Heavily backed in research, my thesis culminated in a function VR prototype, in which users are immersed into a spatially arranged composition, wherein they can reposition the elements of sound and create wholly unique audial experiences. The project was built in Unity for the HTC Vive and completed over the Fall of 2016. Below you will find images from along my journey, the abstract to my thesis, and the link to the full paper, for those who wish to read it. 


A still from one my prototypes. Creating the scenery was grounded in morphed realities, abstracting the world to provide a sense of wonder.


Summation of my Master's Thesis

The influx of virtual worlds accompanying the rise in virtual reality technology is limited not only to visual recreations; it also prompts questions of how this new medium can affect sound and provide new forms of audial experiences. Without the restrictions of the physical world, VR provides an avenue for sonic creation that moves past stereo and surround sound, potentially crafting a fully functional audiovisual installation in the digital realm - one in which audiences can experience the sensation of “being there” through the stimulation of “doing there” and bestowing a sense of agency over the music. Musicians without the reach, space, or resources for physical installations may have a new path of distribution for their experimental efforts, one that should naturally exist in a time during which the proliferation of access to tracks across locations and genres is increasing rapidly.

Developed through Unity for the HTC Vive, Five Nights of Pan is a digital audiovisual installation that aims to explore these possibilities by crafting a functional digital world in virtual reality that grants users the agency to explore an experimental composition through movement, action, and sonic affectation.


Where it all began, my first prototype explored the simplest thing: listening to stereo audio in a virtual space. No frills, just listening. 


The first prototype with interactivity. Here, unique sounds would emit from each cube and flash accordingly. Users could pick up and throw each block, with walls and pillars to impact the reverberation of sound. This was to test the impact of placing their cubes in different locations.


The first prototype to take full advantage of VR, with movement and extensive controls. This was the first iteration of the drum circle design, which became my main goal to recreate with my final prototype: the experience of being in the middle of a percussive circle, and moving each part around.  


My final prototype skewed the natural look of the drum circle for a warped aesthetic that improved functionality, as users could now easily transport themselves around the play area to each of the 16 cubes' areas. The cubes could be carried, thrown, or even destroyed, such that every user could experience the soundscape their own way. Through VR, the sounds acted to create a full 3-D audial envrionment, responding to the positioning of the user's ears to produce a binaural effect.


Looking back and looking ahead

Frankly, I'm thrilled about where my thesis led me. From my first three months of research and writing, I could not have foreseen where the project would end up, and that is the absolute joy of the process. The impact of music in VR is still unknown, and I look forward to pursuing it further. 

Five Nights of Pan

Team credits

Master's Candidate — Zach Dorsett
Panel Member, Co-Chair — DeAngela Duff
Panel Member, Co-Chair — R. Luke Dubois
Panel Member, Adviser  — Kate Sicchio
Panel Member, Adviser — Ethan Hein
Panel Member — Todd Bryant
Program — NYU Integrated Digital Media, M.S.

My full thesis is available to available to download here.

Let's Chat

Right now, I’m a Senior UX Lead for Dotdash Meredith's food vertical, while mentoring new and aspriring UX Designers on the side through ADPList.

However, I’m always happy to hear about new opportunities, meet potential collaborators, or simply grab a cup of coffee. Learn more about me, and reach out anytime. ☻

Copyright © 2022 Zach Dorsett