Voice boxers fight it out in karaoke parlours
In a bid to keep punters entertained, the singalong machines now offer jabs to the left and hooks to the right
Competition is admittedly tight but the recently released Boku-Kara must surely rank with hydrogen-powered roller skates, brain-stimulating armchairs and self-driving slippers as being among the greats of over-engineered Japanese entertainment.
The concept, which has been doing the rounds at trade shows and has the feel of something cooked up in the final minutes of an otherwise unproductive off-site meeting, combines boxing, virtual reality (VR) and karaoke. You warble, you punch with motion-sensitive gloves and, via an algorithm, the activities reinforce one another.
A VR headset pits two players in a virtual boxing ring as animated opponents, fighting while song lyrics flash across the screen. The louder you belt out Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran, the harder your punches land. The aim of the game is to sing-punch your foe to a knockout.
Boku-Kara may never take off but it is undoubtedly the direction in which karaoke — that most Japanese interface between technology and entertainment — has been heading. VR, in particular, has always seemed well suited to karaoke: why sing to a room of drunken friends when you could be on stage as Freddie Mercury at Live Aid or Luciano Pavarotti at La Scala?
For more than a decade, Japan’s karaoke parlours have been at the heart of an escalating technology war as they find themselves competing with other forms of entertainment, most recently Fortnite, Netflix and other audience-entrancing heavyweights. Digital-music streaming has turned the Nintendo Switch and successive generations of Sony’s PlayStation into sophisticated karaoke machines for the home, further adding to the woes of the bricks-and-mortar establishments.
In response, Big Echo and other major Japanese chains of karaoke “boxes” that offer private rooms for small or large gatherings have probably gone as far as they can on the ambience — improving the food, comfort and theming of the rooms. Which leaves the heavy lifting of customer seduction to the technology.
To achieve this, the producers of karaoke machines have introduced a steady stream of gimmicks to keep audiences hooked. One recent innovation is designed to provide a role for people who feel too shy or tuneless to sing, and might otherwise have caught an earlier train home. An app linked to the karaoke machine turns their smartphones into instruments, such as the guitar or drums, whose output is then fed into the background music.
A few years ago, the emphasis was on software that offered a menu of potential voice alterations to make the singer change register, switch gender or resemble their favourite artist. And calorie counters, which pop up at the end of each song to inform the singer how many he or she has burnt, are now standard.
More recently, the industry has picked up on the popularity of American Idol, The Voice and other TV singing competitions. Propelled by software that compares the singer’s efforts with the original version of the song and produces an accuracy score, the focus of karaoke has drifted subtly from sing-song camaraderie to outright one-upmanship, with triumphs shared on social media.
For some, however, there is clearly such a thing as peak tech. More than a decade ago, most Japanese karaoke rooms made the switch from listing the songs in huge, expensive print directories (requiring the number of each song to be entered on a remote control) to providing a touchscreen tablet with all the songs only a prod away. For purists, though, this searchable system destroys one of the key pleasures provided by the books: you can no longer scan a page and chance upon a song or artist you’d forgotten you loved.
For such people — one of them a close friend — technology has at least provided a remedy. They have trawled online auction apps to buy the old song directories, so they can lug them along to their next high-tech sing-song. Boku-Kara’s sing-boxing may have its charms, but you can’t beat good old-fashioned serendipity.
© The Financial Times Limited 2019