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Fields Wants to Be The Augmented Reality App for Experimental Music Fans and Creators Alike

In recent years, augmented reality has demonstrated its immense possibilities—and pitfalls. Video games like “Pokémon Go” have taken over the world, while potentially nefarious uses like Google Glass have been outright rejected by society. The reasons why AR hasn’t taken off yet boil down to its limited functionality and cost-ineffectiveness. Creating tools that add something meaningful or just entertaining to real-world surroundings, at a price point that encourages first-time AR users to experiment, has proven to be a long-term challenge.

Planeta, a small product development studio based in New York, just may have struck the right balance with its new audio AR app for iOS, Fields. The free app, available to download as of today on the App Store, transforms your environment into a three-dimensional canvas for sounds, which you experience by walking around wearing headphones. Represented in the app by glowing orbs, the sounds change in volume and stereo positioning depending on the user’s real-life proximity to the orbs. Imagine standing in a forest, hearing different animals and noises as you step through your living room, or being able to experience a choral performance while nestled among the singers. Fields makes that possible.

You also can use the iPhone’s built-in microphone to make your own “scenes,” i.e. the app’s different AR worlds. Stand in a spot and sing, clap, make any noise, and then walk away. The sound will persist and loop where you left it. If you move while recording, the resulting sound will move along the same path, making for a dynamic installation.

The app comes with pre-installed scenes from various musicians: experimental duo Matmos, electronic composer Robert Lippok, techno artist Matthew Patterson Curry (aka Safety Scissors), vocalist Ami Yamasaki, and jazz trio Nils Berg Cinemascope. Walking through their scenes was initially disorienting. None of them include “songs,” in the traditional sense; instead the landscape is littered with the kinds of sounds that typically add texture to recordings. As I moved closer to each noise in Lippok’s scene, I could hear the granular details: resonant bells, vinyl scratches, pitter-pattering digital blips in an oil tank of reverb. An otherwise relatively static composition literally took on new dimensions as I walked around my room.

“Fields is a way of making and experiencing three-dimensional sound installations,” says Chris Maier, who developed the app alongside Nick Dangerfield, Vicki Siolos, and Dylan Romer. “When you’re laying out sounds spatially, you can create relationships between sounds and ideas that you couldn’t otherwise create in the comparatively narrow confines of a stereo mix. So I’m really interested to see how people might explore narrative storytelling with it.”

Maier and Dangerfield sat down with Pitchfork to discuss the app’s creative possibilities and why it’s important to push the boundaries of music’s current distribution model.

Pitchfork: What kind of art can you foresee being made with an app like Fields?

Chris Maier: I think one of the things we found early on is that it’s not so interesting to simply break up a recording into different tracks and then place them in space, because that’s not really taking advantage of the medium. In my opinion, the most interesting Fields are the ones that combine a variety of different types of sound sources, including environmental sounds, field recordings, more musical things, and even spoken word.

Nick Dangerfield: There was this piece in The New Yorker about Toto’s “Africa” playing in an empty mall and other such videos…

I’ve read that. Those videos are weirdly popular.

ND: That’s the seed of something that would be possible, to create audio models that place you in different situations. One of my favorite uses is purely reproduction of a sound space—like a field recording but with many, many sources. You recreate the space sonically, and then you open it somewhere else, and have like all the corners of this room, and you go around it and listen. You can move close to where the window was and you hear the rain. A fully explorable sonic space.

Would you say Fields is geared more towards creators of music or consumers?

CM: We’re being somewhat cautious in terms of wanting to define it. We’ve thought about how to break up the functionality and make it serve both the consumer and creator of this work. Tempo and metronome functionality are things we don’t have in the app right now, that we could integrate moving forward.

ND: We’re definitely pursuing both, the creation aspect as well as the receiving part.

CM: It would be sort of misleading to say we have some very specific grand vision for Fields. It’s really just an experimentation.

ND: We have to recover a bit of that idea of experimentation [in music technology] and not just be content with what we have. I love the streaming services and all that, but it can’t be like, “This is it. This is how we receive music,” you know? Playing with how you receive music, how you can be surrounded by music, how you will be able to move music around—that’s important. Music is so important for us, more than anything else.

Any artists you’d love to see create installations on Fields?

ND: I’m quite in love with Jenny Hval right now, so I will definitely ask her if she wants to try this out soon.

CM: Mine would be Laurie Anderson.

What compelled you to reach out to folks like Robert Lippok and Matmos to demo this app? Any other collaborations in the works?

ND: Fanhood. Robert Lippok is someone I’ve admired since I was a child. He’s really developed an electronic language. The contours of his sound are something that I really like, so he was someone that was an immediate choice for this. Matmos as well—they’re absolutely wonderful and they’ve done incredible work with the abstraction of sound.

We’re also working with MONOM, which is a 3-D sound institute in Berlin that commissions many pieces and artists to play at their space, which has a 64-channel configuration. Essentially we will be publishing the pieces that are commissioned for the space, because they could not believe that this was going to be technically possible with a phone app. We’re also doing a project with Guggenheim in June, which will be about creating sonic replicas of the Guggenheim with the app. The idea is that this can become a constant space for publication of pieces that involve space.

CM: Right now, we are generating a lot more questions than answers. We really want to just get this tool out there, see how users use it, how people want to use it, and try to make something where people can really express themselves.

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