UK studio Universal Everything has designed an immersive app for Radiohead using artwork by Stanley Donwood and music from the song Bloom. We spoke to UE’s Matt Pyke and Mike Tucker about how it was made.
Polyfauna is free to download on iPhone, iPad and Android. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke says the concept was born out of an interest “in early computer-life experiments and the imagined creatures of our subconscious,” and provides “a window into an evolving world.”
The app guides users through a series of different landscapes, from vast forests to mountainous regions in daylight, darkness and at sunset. Visuals are set to expanded versions of Bloom and sounds from the band’s 2011 album, King of Limbs, composed by Radiohead and producer Nigel Godrich.
Users are greeted with a different virtual world each time they open the app, which they can explore by tilting their device to look up, down and around. They can also interact with it, creating lines, shapes, spiny creatures and plants by touching or swiping their screens.
Universal Everything has been working on Polyfauna for around six months and was first approached by Radiohead in 2011. “I received a mysterious email from Yorke under a pseudonym – he said he’d seen some of our work [an installation in Paris and a website for Warp Records], and would like to collaborate on an app,” he says.
The app was to be “an audio visual expression,” says Pyke. Donwood, who has created artwork for Radiohead since the early 1990s, had produced a series of sketches and paintings of trees, woods and landscapes, and the band were keen to bring his artwork to life.
Working with the artist and the band, Pyke and Universal Everything developer Mike Tucker created a series of 3D worlds that can be explored from all angles. “It’s not supposed to be used at a desk but while you’re stood up and moving around, like you would with a pair of binoculars,” says Pike.
Users can also take snapshots of the various scenes and shapes they have created and upload them to Radiohead’s new website.
“We wanted to add a nice layer of interaction so users weren’t just passively looking around. Stanley’s work has strong evidence of being created by hand, so we wanted to allow users to create life, too,” says Pyke.
The code which allows users to create these 3D creatures was generated using mathematical formulas that calculate the geometric pattern of a spine or fern growing in the wild.
Each user’s shapes will be unique, and Pyke says he hopes the ability to take and share screen grabs will create a sense of discovery. “It’s like users are taking on the role of an explorer and documenting a new place they’ve found. Every place will be different, so they are all undiscovered,” he says.
The number of scenes in the app is, in a sense, infinite, as each time users enter, they are met with a different combination of light, weather, landscape and moon phase, says Tucker.
“There is a disposable culture surrounding phone apps – people tend to download one, give it a play for a few minutes and subsequently delete it if they aren’t impressed. With Polyfauna, we created an experience to be completely unique each day, making a reason to come back and enjoy it days or months later,” he says.
The overall effect is designed to simulate a sense of living inside the band’s music, says Pyke – Godrich and Radiohead’s atmospheric compositions include snippets from throughout the King of Limbs album, and are exploded, distorted versions of tracks rather than traditional remixes.
There are 31 sound track mixes in total and each is broken into four individual channels, which Tucker says are “physically located in the 3D environment. This means as you physically turn your body, each channel will shift, as if you are hearing instruments from afar,” he adds.
It’s an impressive piece of work from Universal Everything, and Radiohead’s most intriguing digital experiment to date.
“It was a really nice collaborative process,” says Pyke. The band has such an experimental ethos – allowing fans to pay what they wanted for their album, Rainbows, for example – and they were all really interested in creating an experiential process, one that stretches the traditional structure of music,” he adds.
You can download Polyfauna here.