Björk made music’s first “VR pop album”—she opens up about its heartbreak 0 25

Björk made music’s first “VR pop album”—she opens up about its heartbreak

Mourn our miraculous triangle —

On VR’s doubters: “It’s a boring question. Can there be soul in technology? Yes!”


Björk's metamorphosis within VR already looks trippy enough as a sample image. It'll blow your mind in VR.

Enlarge / Björk’s metamorphosis within VR already looks trippy enough as a sample image. It’ll blow your mind in VR.

Björk

“I often feel like some sort of [technology] bridge,” singer, songwriter, artist, and producer Björk tells me over the telephone from her home in Iceland. “I’m there in the middle, to translate nerddom to the normal people or something.”

Her mix of Icelandic accent and audible excitement makes every word sound full and round as she describes her personal push-pull relationship with high-end gadgets. For decades, Björk has been renowned for layering synthesizers and electronic effects on top of her indelible singing voice to push pop music’s boundaries (not to mention music videos full of cutting-edge CGI). Professionally, she’s relished new technologies that answer her constant art-making hunch of, “someone should have invented this by now!” But in her personal life, Björk is sometimes woefully behind. She admits, for instance, that she was nearly a decade behind everyone else in her life to use systems like SMS texting and Facebook.

“I like extremes,” Björk tells Ars. “I like things when they’re really acoustic—really, hairs and bones and blood and shit. And I like the extreme opposite, where the tool or the craft gets to be the queen and takes over.”

Björk’s dynamic relationship with technology comes into stark relief when considering the reason she’s calling Ars Technica: a project called Vulnicura VR. This is arguably the world’s first full “VR pop album,” and it’s now available on Windows PCs via Steam for $24.99. It too feels like a technology bridge in the middle: an experience sitting between VR’s skeptical critics and its feverish admirers. It’s equal parts approachable and wild. Grounded in nature and simple VR filmmaking tricks, the album floats into the sky in experimental fashion like a neon-scorched phoenix.

In other words, it’s very, very Björk.

Walk with Björk along a beach of grief

  • Say hello to one of Björk’s VR “puppet” incarnations. (All screens in this gallery were captured from tests of the retail Vulnicura VR app.)


    Björk

  • Though the motion capture is convincing and lively, Björk’s form is abstracted enough, particularly with masks and other visual effects, to dampen issues with the “uncanny valley” while in motion.

  • Transformation is a huge motif in the best of the Vulnicura VR videos.

  • Another VR video in the package, for the song “Family,” frequently inserts the motif of a wound in Björk’s chest.

  • You’d be forgiven for thinking this looked like something else. I believe the metaphor in action is still quite striking, and appropriate, in an emotional-Björk manner.

  • This marbleized form of Björk repeats in a few of the videos and also figured in other mixed-media works related to the album.

  • Eventually, Björk extracts herself from that rock formation and floats directly into the viewer. The impact of this moment, as combined with the swelling of its song, is hard to describe in words.

  • One of the VR sequences casts two entirely different videos on two opposite-facing walls, so you can never look at both simultaneously. The tension is used to great effect, as if this were a museum piece.

  • “Stonemilker” is one of the app’s three 360-degree videos, and it eventually sees multiple versions of Björk dancing around the viewer and staring them directly in the eyes while pleading for a lover’s attention.

For a certain audience of VR fan, Vulnicura VR isn’t necessarily new. The project first emerged publicly in 2015, when Björk released a 360-degree video for “Stonemilker,” the lead single on the 2015 studio album Vulnicura. That project came out at the beginning of VR’s tipping point, in terms of mainstream interest, thanks to cheap “VR shells” like Google Cardboard. Suddenly, anyone could convert a high-end smartphone into a VR viewmaster of sorts.

While most early VR experimenters threw a mess of unfocused visuals and noise at their 360-degree projects, Björk’s first VR video was different. It wasn’t a mess. It was simple, refined, and marked by cinematic restraint.

The crew, led by filmmaker Andy Thomas Huang, placed a single 360-degree camera on a beach where Bjork had written the song—and had grappled with her recent, real-life divorce. In the video, Björk dances around the viewer, often slinking towards them and making direct eye contact, before splitting into multiple versions of herself, all dancing slowly around the viewer. It’s a clever spin on the feeling of relationship unease: of becoming multiple dancing bodies, spun into anxiety and eager to know what’s wrong (“like milking a stone to to get you to say it,” she sings). Meanwhile, a gray ocean’s waves approach nearby, hinting to the same unease that can be heard in the song’s aching, stripped-down string section. There’s no camera trickery, no perspective warping, and nothing that requires spinning around to look all over the place. It’s immersive, haunting, and memorable.

After exhibiting this video at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade record shop in late 2015 and seeing the public’s positive response, Björk accepted offers to build more VR videos for the album’s songs. This week’s Vulnicura VR app collects everything developed during the traveling exhibit’s multi-year run across the world, and it arrives at a time when owning a dedicated VR system isn’t as crazy as that sounded in 2015. “Weirdly enough, when I went into the VR album [four years ago], I allowed myself to dream that I’d be able to eventually release it on something as democratic as a gaming device,” Björk says. “But I decided that’d be a bonus. I couldn’t have that as an end target. I had to let the industry or whatever it is develop, and trust it. That, if I didn’t feel it was friendly to creating things, it was in my head. I had to change my attitude [to create something in VR], not the industry’s attitude.”

As she explains, the final version of Vulnicura VR is a many-headed beast from a production and technology standpoint. Its seven VR videos play back in four discrete “engines,” and they were built by seven different production teams. The range of styles, from simpler 360-degree videos to “fully 3D” worlds, were all bolted together by the end of 2016 with a barebones budget and an early understanding of how to optimize VR content. Björk repeatedly calls out the “DIY” and “punk” nature of the whole production, adding that she’d watch exhibit attendees in real life and solicit feedback to tweak each VR video after each exhibit.

That’s not me. That’s everyone. That’s the same Pagan little puppet you find in the Amazon, in some tribe.

“It’s one of the scariest journeys I’ve taken on,” Björk says about putting the full VR collection together. The source album, Vulnicura, follows a chronological structure as related to her real-life divorce. Björk considered that a benefit in some ways: a timeline to follow, which could add a useful anchor for anyone new to VR. “But I worried,” she says about following that structure. “Are people going to be bored shitless having headsets on? And in the beginning, people were throwing them off and shit. Can people even have headsets on for an hour?”

But the team’s VR hardware got better over time, and along the way, Björk and her production team benefited from the original installations’ biggest limitation. Every headset only had enough memory to hold a single video. Visitors had to wait in a line, watch one video, then wait in another line to watch the next, thus giving them breathing room between each. During this time, Björk learned that one of her early experiments—a sound mix that swirled around users’ ears in intense, 360-degree fashion—made viewers feel uncomfortable, not immersed. “So I started making everything still sonically with only one thing moving,” she says. “It’d be really intentional and obvious. That seemed to move people to tears, make them love it.”

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“The Switcher” is real: Witcher 3 on Switch is a blurry, tolerable compromise 0 14

“The Switcher” is real: Witcher 3 on Switch is a blurry, tolerable compromise

Yes, it has wet butts —

How do you shrink such a demanding RPG down to Switch’s weaker specs? This is how.


In good news, you can boot straight into expansion content when loading this version of <em>The Witcher 3</em>. I imagine more than a few fans of the game will use this Switch version to dive deeply into either or both of the expansions.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/2019101116304400-2AF2C4CCD5F28D087B476BE33BFE1BF8-800×450.jpg”></img><figcaption>
<p><a data-height=Enlarge / In good news, you can boot straight into expansion content when loading this version of The Witcher 3. I imagine more than a few fans of the game will use this Switch version to dive deeply into either or both of the expansions.

Since Nintendo’s Switch console launched in 2016, we’ve seen no shortage of holy-cow ports of games we never thought would work on what turned out to be the most underpowered console of this generation. Doom 2016, Dark Souls, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus—that’s a list of demanding 3D games I never expected to launch on Switch, let alone games I’d actually recommend for the system.

But I do so with a pretty hefty asterisk attached. The charm of these games on Switch comes almost entirely due to them being playable on the go, at which point their severe compromises (image quality, rendering resolution) become much more acceptable. What looks iffy on a full-sized TV is easier to shrug off when seen on a six-inch 720p panel.

This week marks the arrival of arguably the most holy-cow port yet on the portable console: CD Projekt Red’s 2015 action-RPG The Witcher 3. This is a game, after all, whose other console versions required quite a few patches to get their most troublesome spots up to a locked 30 frames per second. We went hands-on over the weekend with the game’s final retail version (which launches for Switch on Tuesday) to answer a crucial question: could we expect playability in CDPR’s acclaimed adventure game on an even weaker system?

Not every polygon came through unscathed

  • In many ways, The Witcher 3 dedicates its Switch polygons where they count.

  • And when pre-baked lighting effects emerge, cinematic scenes can look quite handsome, even if they run closer to 20fps.

  • But while characters and certain scenes can look fantastic, a lot of the game’s default geometry, particularly its foliage, can look quite weird.

  • There’s also the matter of some rampant texture pop-in in some cinematic scenes.

  • Even in this cinematic scene, the effects of reduced screen resolution come into play.

  • Some optimized cinema scenes can look crisp and clear enough.

  • What you’re really looking for is real-time gameplay, and the rest of this gallery focuses on that.

  • We don’t have pixel-counting gear in-house, but in action, this looks on par with Doom 2016‘s Switch port.

  • The physics attached to these trees in a wind storm makes them look pretty convincing—at least, as opposed to some of the lower-poly foliage in other scenes.

  • There’s one wolf and one deer in there. That can be kind of hard to discern, even in action.

  • The view distance is okay, but nothing to scream home about.

  • Low-res Witcher.

  • There’s more than bad weather affecting the visibility in this moment.

  • Witchers can just barge in anywhere, can’t they.

The good news is that our initial impressions reveal a mostly locked 30fps refresh rate—stable enough to where the slightest frame rate hiccups have been nigh unnoticeable in our first few hours of play. The most crucial moments of battle and enemy management aren’t ruined by the on-screen action herking and jerking. This is met by some seriously quick loading times; getting from a cold boot to a loaded game save is rarely more than 60 seconds, and loading times between parts of the world are even faster.

The bad news, as can be seen in the gallery above, is that Witcher 3 on the Switch looks a lot more like Witcher 2. For starters, its apparent resolution is some of the blurriest we’ve ever seen on Switch in both docked and portable modes. While the results look comparable to Doom 2016, Witcher 3 is a much slower game, and it demands that you let your eyes linger over massive, dramatically lit landscapes and towns. The blur draped over all of that scenery is more noticeable than, say, a rapid-fire pulse of shotguns through demons’ faces.

Those landscapes are covered in foliage, a fact that impressed back in 2015 with CDPR’s dense rendering system working nearly as well on console as it did on PC. But that system’s polygon count and texture density have both been scaled back dramatically to get trees, shrubs, and other greenery working on Switch. This was probably done to preserve facial detail on pretty much every human character in the game, which is certainly a preferable compromise, but the disconnect between an emotionally brooding Geralt and a dinky, PlayStation 2-era wall of vines is one fans will have to accept if they want to marathon this version of Witcher 3 on the go.

Other major settings like shadow resolution, ground textures, and hair physics have also been scaled back, which you can argue is acceptable or annoying based on your personal preferences. The lower resolution of the Switch screen makes these downgrades a little more tolerable, in my opinion. But enough of the game’s geometry has been noticeably de-tuned that it stands out in the game’s lengthy, well-written cinema scenes (which, I should note, often struggle in the frame rate department, sometimes dipping into 10-15fps range).

One moment, the game will smother its scenery in some of the most handsome, pre-baked lighting effects you may have ever seen on Switch. The next moment, a tight zoom on Geralt and his allies stutters with texture pop-in and grungy foliage effects nearby. That kind of startling visual contrast shows up in this Switch port more than I expected.

Totally playable—just be warned

I don’t mean to say Witcher 3 is unplayable or ruined by the effort spent getting it into Switch-compatible shape. However, completely new players should be warned that CDPR’s cinematic vision for the game is compromised just enough to take this port out of my running for a clear-cut recommendation. If you’ve already played Witcher 3 and want an excuse to burn through it anew on the go, complete with convenient “fast forward to the expansions” shortcuts, then yes, this port is a great reason to return to Nilfgaard. If you don’t have any other consoles or a decent gaming PC, then “Switcher 3” is absolutely playable. (Plus, in my personal opinion, it’s better than Switch’s Skyrim as an on-the-go RPG, even with low resolutions and other visual compromises.)

But if you do have another hardware option and aren’t necessarily itching for a purely portable RPG, take a breath and look at other systems’ heavily discounted versions before making this your very first way to play the game.

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Liveblog: Google’s Pixel 4 (and friends) launch event starts 10/15 0 5

Liveblog: Google’s Pixel 4 (and friends) launch event starts 10/15

Tune in tuesday —

Tune in at 10am ET for the Pixel 4, Pixelbook Go, Nest WiFi, and more.


Promotional image of two smartphones side by side.

Enlarge / Google’s first official picture of the Pixel 4.

It’s that time of year again! Google’s big hardware event kicks off Tuesday, October 15 at 10am Eastern, and we’ll be there with full live coverage of the event. That starts with a liveblog, where we’ll be covering everything announced at the show as it happens.

This year should see a whole suite of Google products launch. Headlining the event will be Google’s next smartphone, the Pixel 4, with a 90Hz display, an air-gesture system powered by Google’s radar “Soli” technology, and a next-gen version of the Google Assistant. There should also be a new Pixelbook, the Pixelbook Go, which sees a return to a more traditional form factor after the collapse of the Pixel Slate.

With Nest’s recent demotion from a standalone company to a Google smart home sub-brand, we should see two new products with the weird branding of “Google Nest.” We’re expecting to see a sequel to the Google Wifi called the “Google Nest Wifi.” This new rev of Google’s mesh Wi-Fi system will reportedly have a primary router that hooks up to your modem and then several satellite devices that are both Wi-Fi mesh nodes and Google Home speakers that accept Google Assistant voice command and can play music. A second-gen Google Home Mini should also launch at the show with an aux jack and better sound, and this one will be rebranded “Google Nest Mini.”

Finally, there’s expected to be a new version of the Google Pixel Buds. Hopefully this time they are fully wireless.

While a lot about Google’s future lineup has leaked, there’s still plenty we hope to learn from the show. We don’t know the prices, release dates, or (probably very limited) country availability for anything. Other than some text descriptions, the Nest Home Mini, Nest Wifi, and new Pixel Buds are mostly mysteries. We’re also not exactly sure why you would want Project Soli in a smartphone or what other surprises Google has in store for the Pixel software.

All will be revealed October 15 at 10am, so be sure to follow along live.

Liveblog starts in:

View Liveblog

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