Beatie Wolfe is using augmented reality to add another layer to her music
Can augmented reality bring ceremony back to the act of listening to an album? Singer-songwriter Beatie Wolfe certainly hopes so.
At her latest album launch – from within an echoless room – the folk singer said she wanted to create an experience like a record-sleeve come to life with art and lyrics dancing around in virtual space to her songs.
She has worked with Design I/O, a graphic design firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to produce a visual layer to accompany her new album, Raw Space. She launched it from Nokia Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Her project is part of Experiments in Art and Technology, a 50-year-old programme bringing together engineers and technologists with artists to create new work.
Standing inside an anechoic chamber, built in the 1940s and used for sensory research that feeds telecommunication and performance hall designs, Wolfe performed two tracks from the new album.
In a forest
As Wolfe launched into Little Moth, a near-anagram of the song’s subject, singer Elliott Smith, a screen in an antechamber displayed a camera feed emanating from the anechoic chamber. Then light seemed to stream from Wolfe’s mouth and the guitar strings.
Small moths floated around her, coming together to form the words she was singing, and filling up the room – which then transformed into a forest scene with firefly-like baubles scattering across the floor.
The enchanting effect was achieved using KINECT motion-sensing devices, designed for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 games console, to track her movements, said Nick Hardeman of Design I/O, with graphics following her round the room in real time.
It was even more immersive once we donned virtual-reality headsets and were transported into the anechoic chamber where a record player began spinning out Wolfe’s husky, earnest voice and the moths took flight again. Bell Labs engineers were on hand to stop us bumping into others as we explored the virtual space. My minder had to yank on my elbow a few times as I wandered off to see what it looked like to be rained on by light in the corner of the room.
It was like walking around in a dream someone had made for me.
Walking on a tennis racquet
The real anechoic chamber had its own dream-like quality. The room is a near-cube, measuring nearly 10 metres across. We entered onto wire netting strung across the centre of the space, 5 metres above the ground. It felt like walking on the face of a loosely strung tennis racquet.
Beatie Wolfe’s new album is called Raw Space
Every outer surface of the room, including the floor, is lined with fin-like fibreglass wedges 1.5 metres deep, tapered to a point and covered in their own wire mesh. Any sound produced in the room enters a gap about 15 centimetres wide, and bounces down a smaller and smaller space towards the concrete walls, until it is absorbed by the cones.
Listening as Wolfe performed The Man Who, a simple melody with haunting lyrics, from within the chamber, it was interesting to note how sound plays tricks with your ears in there. When no one speaks, the silence can be oppressive – a bit like having a feverish headache.
But when Wolfe sang, the melody was crisp, if fleeting. In the chamber, sound doesn’t linger as long as it does in the noisy, outside world, so you must pay close attention to catch any words.
And although Wolfe was standing on the opposite side of the chamber, her voice sounded as if it was coming from directly beside my ear. It was intimate, like the sound of secrets whispered under bed covers. But she wasn’t whispering at all.
Raw Space will be streamed in 360-degree augmented reality starting on 5 May at youtube.com/beatiewolfe