Although next week will mark the late David Bowie's 72nd birthday, his fans and admirers are the ones receiving a gift in the form of an augmented reality app that explores the artist's career
Available for $7.99 on the App Store and Google Play on January 8, "David Bowie Is" packs a virtual recreation of the eponymous touring exhibit, which has drawn two million visitors in 12 cities to date.
The app is collaboration between the David Bowie Archive and Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc., and consists of more than 20 virtual galleries exploring the various eras and aspects of Bowie's career, spanning from his childhood influences to his final album, Blackstar, with stops at milestones such as his hit song "Space Oddity" and the "Ziggy Stardust" tour along the way.
Each gallery presents 3D models of costumes alongside album art, handwritten music and lyric sheets, magazine advertisements, music videos, concert footage, and other memorabilia, which fans can view up close and personal in AR. Award-winning actor Gary Oldman (Harry Potter, The Dark Knight), a close friend of Bowie, serves as narrator throughout the tour, though Bowie's music and interview clips take center stage for the majority of the experience.
"This brings the amazing 'David Bowie Is' exhibition to a wider audience," said Oldman in a statement. "It's great that his fans get to experience it. It was a privilege to be involved."
While Next Reality scored a backstage pass to the AR museum by way of a beta version of the app, let me say that the app is worth the price of admission.
Designed for tabletop viewing, the experience continually blurs the line between augmented and virtual reality. The galleries envelop the space of the user with dark backgrounds and multimedia backdrops (though, upon closer examination, the real world is still faintly visible through the darkness).
The AR museum interface is reminiscent of the virtual Vermeer exhibit from the Google Arts & Culture app. However, while Google emulates the appearance of a museum, "David Bowie Is" generally employs an otherworldly experience.
Users follow the linear path of the tour, or they can skip around via a map of the exhibit. You can also explore each gallery by moving your smartphone through the virtual environment. When users tap on items in the camera view, the virtual gallery peels away, leaving just the selected artifact, accompanied by a pop-up card with more details, remaining in the user's physical environment.
Even the virtual galleries themselves are works of art. "Space Oddity" deposits visitors in Earth's orbit, with artifacts floating in space. As Oldman's narration ends, the song's music video dramatically eclipses Earth's image in the background. The "Ziggy Stardust" gallery, consisting of virtual mannequins wearing Bowie's many costumes for the persona, explode onto the screen in a flash of light while Bowie struts on stage via live footage in the background.
The app delivers the dulcet tones of Bowie and Oldman via spatial audio, making headphones a requirement to truly enjoy the AR experience. This feature in particular accentuates Oldman's role as tour guide, with his voice serving as a prompt for where the audience should focus their attention. And when the music kicks in, it appears to fill the room.
The combination of the AR visuals, spatial audio, and outrageous presentation creates a highly immersive experience that borders on trance-inducing. And, fittingly, the overall cosmic atmosphere of the experience matches Bowie's psychedelic pop sensibilities in a way that is heightened through augmented reality. In simpler terms, the app reminds me of a time when music aficionados experienced albums as a more complete experience (rather than as one-off, digital singles), hypnotized by the music pouring from their headphones while dissecting the album art and following along with the lyrics word for word.
It's easy to get jaded regarding such descriptions when everything in AR is supposedly magical, but, in this case, the "magic" of Bowie's AR experience is no exaggeration. It's a landmark achievement that earns every cent that fans will pay for it, and, with any luck, the app will influence other artists to revive the art of the album-style approach to music projects.