Bjork's Biophilia iPad app

Bjork’s new Biophilia project has begun this week with the release of the Biophilia ‘mother app’, and the first of the musical releases, ‘Crystalline’.

We first came across rumblings of the Biophilia project at the end of 2010 whilst adding the final finessing touches to the sound design for Solar System for iPad. The app included an exclusive track from Bjork that played on startup, set to an animated fly through of the solar system. We designed all the haptic rumbles, atmosphere and the homepage theme to blend with Bjork’s track so there was a tonic consistency to the user experience.

That first piece of music, and it’s affiliation with both an iPad app and the theme of the universe from cosmic to microcosmic, was the beginning of a full blown exploration into technology, music, sound and nature. So has she achieved the next step along the iPad’s evolutionary path?

Well, first of all I think Bjork is one of the very few true geniuses in music today, and almost everything she does I adore. Musically this is no exception and I believe this may be her best album in the traditional sense since Vespertine. But as a sound designer with a special interest in the possibilities of audio in apps, I’m still not sure she has achieved something particularly ground breaking.

The homepage world of a line drawn nebular wherein every star contains a piece of music is beautiful. As you fly past each star the track assigned to it becomes audible and moves around you spatially, which is great though they could have been more intelligent with the holophonic (or binaural) sound design. Many sound based apps these days claim to have immersive 3D binaural audio (last year’s Inception app for example), and are usually just simply stereo. This is no exception.

Playing in the background of this nebular environment is an eerie vocal drone, which while being both beautiful and atmospheric, glitches at the end of its loop every 30 secs or so. I would’ve though they could have worked out how to make sound files loop without a glitch (we have). I know this is a minor fact, but I feel if you’re presenting something as breaking new ground in sound and technology, you kind of have to do it well.

Within the ‘Crystalline’ track there are a few visual representations of the music. There is a game reminiscent of the blowing-up-the-Deathstar bit from the original Star Wars arcade game. It’s kind of cool as an interactive video. But personally when I’m listening to something new, I want to concentrate on listening and not be occupied trying to work out how to play a game. The other visualisations take more of a musical tablature/score form. Neither manage to create a multi-sensorial experience, but rather two separate sensorial experiences.

Overall, again grand claims have been made about a new exploration of sound, and a new use of the iPad technology, that has made me prick my ears up and wonder if someone has done something really, truly interesting. So far (and there are still several tracks to be released that could suddenly blow this all out of the water), it hasn’t quite delivered. The interface needs refinement (though it works better on an iPad 2). The visualisations are nice but don’t add anything really. The sound (again, so far) is good but not brilliantly executed - I expect more. The music and the visual direction are beautiful and very Bjork, but this is a marketing tool with some interesting content, and nothing more. I’d still rather put the album on, lay back, and do my own explorations of space.

björk biophilia app intro narrated by david attenborough