When I heard Los Angeles indie rockers Local Natives released a new single called “I Saw You Close Your Eyes,” I knew I had to check out what they'd been up to — but first, I had to dim the lights, lean toward my laptop and do what the title said.
The band launched the single with an interactive app from Lee Martin, a developer working in the music industry. “Close Your Eyes” won't play unless the listener closed their eyes in front of their webcam — and no peeking, or else the music stops.
New technologies — from face detection to Google street view, from virtual reality to wearable devices — are enabling creators like Martin to explore more visceral, interactive ways for musicians to connect with audiences.
“ Music is the perfect vehicle for these experiments because it creates a thread of emotion in an otherwise cold space,” he said. “ As technology blends more seamlessly into our lives, it’s exciting to consider how we’ll be able to engage our senses and create a more personal connection with the art we love.”
In the case of the “Close Your Eyes” project, Martin had an idea for using webcam technology to sense when viewers’ eyes were open or closed when working with electronic music artist Cut Copy a few years ago. He create an app that used face detection to check if a pair of eyes were present in front of the webcam — and if a face was detected but eyes were not, the program could assume the eyes were closed. That project went in another direction but he pocketed the idea — and found a home for it with Local Natives aptly titled track.
In Martin’s mind, there’s no doubt interactive videos are here to stay. The industry may think so too — web-based, interactive projects aren't just coming from indie acts or underground bands but high-profile recording artists like Usher and Bob Dylan.
Bjork, an artist known for pushing technical boundaries, made interactivity and immersion the focus of a new project called Bjork Digital presented by the LA Philharmonic, open now through June 4. Viewers are treated to six virtual reality experiences while donning custom-made headsets set to music from Bjork’s latest album Vulnicura, in addition to other video experiences.
Canadian indie rock maestros Arcade Fire were other early adopters of interactive videos — the web-based video for “Neon Bible” lets users play around with the hands of largely cloaked figure, while “Reflektor” uses a mobile phone and a web browser.
But it was all the way back in 2010 when their song “We Used to Wait” was used in the Chris Milk project “The Wilderness Downtown.” Before pressing play, the user provides their childhood address to personalize the images that are displayed, creating an experience is as fraught, intimate and panoramic as an Arcade Fire song itself.
Martin said this project was a tipping point in recognizing the power of interactive videos, noting how the “geo-nostalgia” of a personal physical address makes the video timeless.
“Technology was not the story, it was the vehicle for engaging the senses and inspiring memory,” Martin said. “I applaud any efforts where the technology dissolves away while creating focus.”
Steve Milton of Listen, a creative music agency founded in 2012, also said “The Wilderness Downtown” was an a-ha moment.
“They personalized it and it was really emotive,” he said. “It brought another element to the music in a way that wasn’t gimmicky, that was really powerful.”
Listen, home to 15 employees headquartered in New York City, has created more than a dozen interactive videos as part of a larger partnership with Microsoft. One was a game-style video featuring an 8-bit remix of the M83 song “Go” that mimics a driving car in a retro scene to match the sound, where the car speeds up or slow down base on the rhythm of the song.
Another project featured New Zealand-based duo Broods for their song, “Heartlines,” and featured Microsoft Band wearable technology to track the heart of the lead singer, Georgia, as she performed, and translate the data into geometric visuals. The band liked it so much they took it on tour, Milton said.
While every project is different, the main goal is to understand the artist’s intention of what message or feeling they want the listener to take away from the song, Milton said.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re using technology in a way that is going to bring an emotive quality to the experience, rather than just technology for the sake of it,” he said. “We want to make sure people are able to experience the music and beyond in a way that is a new, but also in a way that allows them to feel immersed and kind of have an emotive experience.”
Martin similarly warned against using technology in ways that don’t merit the users’ time. Creating a focus, he said, is key to a successful interactive project.
“A good concept should elicit a moment of trust between you and your user,” he said. “They are willing to invest their time to experience something new. Ask yourself if the concept you have created fulfills this promise.