Talking about the augmented reality apocalypse, HEALTH, and digital synesthesia, with REIFY CEO Allison Wood.
Inside REIFY’s Brooklyn headquarters, music has reclaimed a physical form. Like vinyls and mixtapes before them, the company’s 3D-printed sound sculptures turn musical data into a material reality. REIFY's "musical totems," however, outstrip their limited (while loved) predecessors, through experience-influenced designs, decidedly three-dimensional surfaces, and their accompanying interactive visuals.
Since we covered REIFY earlier this year for their work during their NEW INC incubator residency, CEO and self-described “music head” Allison Wood has been hard at work sharpening her company’s objective to a provocative point—one which may prove perfectly co-adapted to streaming culture. "We aim to collectively crowdsource a new visual language for sound and one that’s based on the human experience of the sound, not just the scientific attributes of it," Wood tells me on the couches of her Bushwick studio. “I think that we have lost the multi-sensory/cross-sensory experience of sound. So, what we’re trying to do is reimagine where we can restore that physicality and how we can do it in an engaging way that is bridging the best bits of analog (yesterday) and digital (today); the mobile device era.”
As revealed through their Kickstarter, which launched today, REIFY’s first public revelation of this reimagination is with Los Angeles-based noise rock band, HEALTH. This month, the band will release their single “Dark Enough” from their upcoming album Death Magic (Loma Vista) via REIFY totem, and augmented reality experience presented on the Stylus app.
An exemplar of their evolving process, the "Dark Enough" totem resulted from various design influences: raw sound data from Health's track, Wood's specialized creative input, REIFY's support-free printing method—which results in higher risks and, quite often, beautiful rewards—and the band's own "experience" of their sound. After they had produced a basic prototype for the song, REIFY and the band sat down to review the sculpture, bouncing brainstorms off one another in what Wood has deemed "the language of sound in its physical form." This linguistic development, comparable to any other lexicon adapted to a new technological development, has been an organic accompaniment to her work. "It’s not just its waveform—not just its amplitude, you know—it’s like, what is the contour of a sound?" Wood elucidates, "What is the density of a sound? How dense is a repeating element in a sculpture. Do things repeat? Is it a-symmetrical? Is it symmetrical?"
Wood gestures down at the “Dark Enough” totem before us. “In the case of ‘Dark Enough,’ I think that the noise and texture of the audio was a really important component and that was something that we remapped and saved into our software,” she explains. “The audio needed to be mapped to the texture of the object.” Against the pale wood of the table, the cobalt blue PLA (polylactic acid) plastic twists upward like a barren bonsai tree. “You can see that the ridges increase, become more jagged, and more pronounced,” she demonstrates. "And that was an important way in visualizing this audio and feeling like this form is actually capturing what’s happening here.”
Wood slides her iPhone from off the table and summons up the Stylus app. "I think part of this experience is creating a digital synesthesia: using technology to connect our senses. With REIFY, the question was, can we create authentic digital synesthetic experiences? That is a mouthful, but I think it’s the best way to talk about it."
Like each avenue of visuals offered on the app, the AR aspect of “Dark Enough" was developed principally through gaming software, and then mapped to the physical world with real-time compositing. "I dont want to take you out of reality: I want to enhance it. It’s like looking through a looking glass," Wood explains. “[...] The way that we are building out the visuals that are mapped to the object is that they’re interactive and there is a discovery element to it. So my experience is different than your experience, but we can discuss that and when we go back, show each other things and have a different experience and see something different or navigate your way through the visuals in a different way."
"People like to customize and have their own experience and being able to introduce that into music is really cool.”
Aiming the screen at the silent sculpture, she hastily prefaces with a modest disclaimer—“We’re still in beta”—nevertheless, the display hesitates for only an instant before sparking to life. As the dark, synth sound of “Dark Enough” swells through the high-ceilinged studio, a post-apocalyptic world builds and crumbles in equal degree around the totem’s uneven spire. With a mounting contagious fervor, Wood circles the structure, showcasing the app’s various interactive features. “We built in ‘pause,’ so we can pause it, and start to explore what’s going on here [...] You can see there are these drones that are also helping you and now we can actually destroy the city, so we can go in and start to blow things up.” Zooming in on the visuals, she sends a drone into battle. “There’s a loose narrative throughout the song, but mostly it's meant for you to explore and have your own experience with what’s there.”
With today's Kickstarter launch, "Dark Enough" completed, and a line-up of artist collaborations in tow (Yacht, Mae, and violinist Tim Fain are already on the roster), REIFY looks to the larger implications of their cross-sensory creation: a crowdsourced database that could eventually contain the annals of a new visual language for sound. "[We want to] be able to build out a large enough cloud service so that we can store all this data," Wood says. "So by saving [the experiences] into a database, we have the audio file that correlates to that so eventually we can machine-learn it back [...] I think it’s exciting to think about if there is a human experience of sound that we can all agree on. And if there isn’t, then what trends could emerge? Is there something that makes something fundamentally one genre versus another? So one day we could look [at the totems] and say, ‘oh thats all hip-hop.’ Or, ‘oh that’s definitely rock and rock because it’s asymmetrical—or whatever other attributes become associated with that type of sound.'"
"And I think it’s really fucking awesome that technology is at the point that we can do that," she adds. "It’s not just sci-fi: it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take a lot of data, but its possible."