One day last June, San Francisco-based media artist Scott Snibbe woke up to an unexpected email.
“I was surprised to find in my inbox a short email from Björk's manager, written in typically understated English style that said, ‘I am sorry to bother you, I work for the recording artist Björk, she is a massive fan of your work, we're looking to make an iPad app, do you know anyone who might be interested?’” recalls Snibbe.
In fact, what the Icelandic musician had in mind was an entire album of apps—one to accompany each song on her forthcoming album, Biophilia. And she wanted Snibbe, who made a name for himself in the late 1990s by innovating with projector-related interactivity, to take the wheel. He said yes.
The Biophilia project, which is still ongoing, became a 14-month undertaking for Snibbe and various members of his staff—from two to ten people at a time, at different levels of commitment. They worked with about twenty collaborators along the way as well, chosen by Björk: Her musical team, animators, scientists, and her long-time design collaborators M/M Paris, who designed key aspects.
In a similar manner to an album, Biophilia consists of a container app that contains a series of individual apps that relate to specific songs on the album. Each app offers up some level of unique interactivity that is closely tied either rhythmically or thematically to the correlating song. In "Virus", for example, the app is a game that challenges the gamer with stopping a virus attack on a series of cells. In this case, the game has a surprise ending; if you stop the virus's attack, the song ends.
“Programming the apps took the most time,” says Snibbe of the experience. “It’s a time-intensive process. Björk works like an artist, and it was a very worthwhile challenge for all of us involved to match the astonishing vision she had in her head.”
For Snibbe, this current moment in time, embodied by Biophilia, represents something significant, on par with the birth of cinema or opera: the coming together of disparate media into a new, complete whole.
“Human beings have five sensory inputs: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell,” says Snibbe. “Our brains are designed to synthesize these five data streams into the illusion of a unified whole, and our bodies can then reach in and manipulate this synthesized reality that really only exists in our minds.
"The iPad and interactive platforms like it present an opportunity beyond cinema to create new synthetic, interactive realities with music that fulfills what most musicians want to create: a total sensory experience, and one that can transcend the limitations of lights, fog, and smoke onstage to take one to the far reaches of the universe, into a cell, or even into Björk's own mind.”
But does Bjork’s project represent the start of a trend? Because the album release isn't finished yet–Bjork just recently finished releasing all the song-apps–so it's too early to know what kind of profit Biophilia has generated. However, it does have an overall rating of four stars in iTunes, with over 700 user reviews.
The bigger question is probably: Is the recording industry ready for such a unique concept? “There are some big business obstacles to other musicians creating something like Biophilia, which is a ‘concept app’ much like Pink Floyd's The Wall and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper’s are concept albums,” says Snibbe.
“To create such a project requires a significant dedicated stretch of time and/or money to develop and engineer a strong concept. Then, it requires everyone on the business side to agree to a deal that is worthwhile."
"That can be a challenge right now for the record companies, but I know they’re motivated to make it work, since apps will outsell music by the end of this year.”