Björk made music’s first “VR pop album”—she opens up about its heartbreak 0 71

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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Google Maps gets new icon, tweaked UI for 15th birthday 0 10

Google Maps gets new icon, tweaked UI for 15th birthday

OK, but what about dark mode? —

There’s a new icon, new tabs, and the death of the hamburger button.


  • Left: the new Google Maps logo. Right: the old logo.

  • The new logo loosely follows Google’s new icon style, which is slowly creeping across the app lineup.

  • Here’s the “new” Google Maps. There are two new tabs at the bottom and “For You” was renamed to “Updates.” Also the hamburger button is dead.

  • Here are the two new tabs. Neither of these sections are new; they’re just tab buttons now.

Google Maps is turning 15 this year, and Google is celebrating with a new icon and a few UI tweaks.

First, the Google Maps icon is no longer, well, a map and is now a multi-colored map pin. Like all of Google’s other recent icons, Maps’ icon follows a formula of outfitting a simple shape or letter with the colors red, blue, green, and yellow, and calling it a day. You can expect this new icon to pop up on your phone sometime soon.

The bottom tab navigation is going to switch from three tabs to five, with new tabs for “Saved” (Saved places), “Contribute,” and “Updates.” None of these sections really represent new features, they just used to live in the left-side navigation drawer and now they have top-level access via the tab bar. Speaking of the left-side navigation drawer, the hamburger button that used to open it is dead. Presumably, the settings and other miscellaneous menu options will live under the account switcher, accessible via your profile picture on the right side of the search bar.

Crowdsourcing has always been a major source of information for Google Maps, and soon Google says it will start surfacing information based on surveys that past Google Maps users have filled out. Things like the temperature of a mass transit car, accessibility, and the security level will soon be surfaced when you’re planning your travels.

Google’s last update concerns the company’s augmented reality “Live View” mode in Maps. Instead of unreliable smartphone compass hardware, Live View cross-references your camera feed with Street View imagery to figure out the direction you’re facing. The feature is meant to help with walking navigation in big cities, where getting that first turn right can often be a challenge. Live View works, but location compatibility is currently extremely limited right now. Google says it will be “expanding Live View and testing new capabilities” over the coming months but doesn’t provide any detail on what, exactly, that means.

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Downloading public court documents costs a dime a page—is that legal? 0 18

Downloading public court documents costs a dime a page—is that legal?

Tear down this wall? —

Federal courts use hefty PACER fees to pay for non-PACER projects.


Chief Justice John Roberts.

Enlarge / Chief Justice John Roberts did not actually use PACER fees to buy a new chair. That’s just a hypothetical example.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

If you need documents from federal court cases, you’re in luck. Almost every brief, exhibit, and legal ruling is available for download from the judiciary’s PACER website. But there’s a catch: documents cost 10 cents a page.

In 2016, three nonprofit organizations, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Alliance for Justice sued the federal courts—in federal court. The class action lawsuit, filed on behalf of all fee-paying PACER users, argued that these hefty charges were illegal. Federal law allows the courts to charge fees “only to the extent necessary” to provide public access to information. Over the last 15 years, the cost of storage and bandwidth has plunged. Yet PACER’s fees have actually risen from 7 cents to 10 cents. These fees have raised far more money than it costs to run the PACER system: $146 million in 2016 alone.

In a 2018 ruling, Judge Ellen Huvelle largely agreed with the plaintiffs, concluding that the courts are breaking the law by spending PACER money on non-PACER projects like installing flat-screen TVs in courtrooms and sending electronic notifications to bankruptcy creditors. On Monday, the case reached the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where three judges heard oral arguments from each side. Judges seemed skeptical of the arguments of government lawyers representing the judiciary.

Before I explain the arguments, I should note that I’m not a neutral observer on this issue. As a reporter, I’m a frequent user of PACER; Ars Technica will probably get some money back if the plaintiffs win this lawsuit. Also, a decade ago, I helped create RECAP, a browser extension that helps PACER users share documents with each other and avoid paying PACER fees. I’ve long been on record arguing that public court documents should be free to the public—not locked behind a paywall.

The current lawsuit wouldn’t go that far. Both sides agree that the courts are allowed to charge something for judicial documents. But the two sides in Monday’s oral arguments disagreed radically about how much the documents should cost. Plaintiffs argued that the law only allows the courts to charge the marginal cost of distributing documents—a tiny fraction of the current fee. The Administrative Office of the Courts, on the other hand, has argued for an expansive interpretation of the law that allows them to charge as much as they want and to spend it on anything related to distributing information electronically to the public.

In her 2018 ruling, Judge Huvelle charted a middle course. She ruled that the courts could not only charge for the cost of delivering a particular document to a particular customer, but also for the costs of maintaining the infrastructure behind the PACER system. That includes CM/ECF, the website that litigants and judges use to upload, organize, and view case documents. She concluded that these costs are relevant because PACER is fundamentally a public-facing front-end for the CM/ECF system. But she held that the courts couldn’t use PACER fees to pay for projects completely unrelated to PACER.

“We’re redecorating all judges’ offices with gold plate”

Monday’s oral arguments (MP3 recording here) didn’t go well for Alisa Klein, the government lawyer representing the judiciary. At one point an exchange got so testy that Judge Raymond Clevenger snapped, “Do you have a lot of trouble answering questions generally in life or just when you come in front of the court?”

Rather than directly defending the courts’ use of PACER fees for non-PACER purposes, Klein spent most of her time arguing that the courts shouldn’t be hearing the case at all—an issue known as “standing” in legal jargon. While the law restricts how fees can be spent, she said, Congress didn’t intend to let individual PACER users sue the courts if the law wasn’t followed.

The judges seemed skeptical. Clevenger asked incredulously whether it would be legal for PACER fees to be used to replace “the curtains at the Supreme Court” and to buy “the Chief Justice’s new chair.”

“We’re redecorating all judges’ offices with gold plate,” he said sarcastically. Under the judiciary’s theory, he said, “there’s absolutely no remedy” for this kind of illegal spending.

But Klein pointed out that the judiciary’s budget gets reviewed and approved every year by Congress. If Congress doesn’t want the courts spending PACER fees on gold-plated office renovations, Congress can easily nix expenses it doesn’t like. This annual process of oversight and appropriations, not lawsuits from private citizens, should shape spending decisions by the courts, she argued.

If the judges do decide that the courts have overcharged customers, they’ll be left with the tricky problem of deciding how much was overcharged. Deepak Gupta, the lawyer who represented the non-profit plaintiffs, said he didn’t have enough information to draw a clear line between permitted and illegal uses. He suggested that the judges send the case back down to the lower courts with instructions to dig into the courts’ budgets, uncover more information, and then rule on the issue.

While this lawsuit might force the courts to reduce PACER fees, eliminating the paywall entirely will probably take action from Congress. Last year, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) introduced legislation requiring the courts to make PACER documents available free of charge. But so far the bill hasn’t gotten much traction.

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