REAL-TIME 3D – MUSIC AND AUGMENTED REALITY

pharos AR 3D music app

This post is also available in: Italiano

Today, real-time 3D technologies offer new media formats: a detail the most innovative actors of the music industry have not missed. This the case of Childish Gambino, a proponent of Pharos AR, one of the most interesting augmented reality experiences implemented so far in the mobile field.

Childish Gambino is, in fact, Donald Glover‘s musical avatar, and whoever follows him from the beginning knows very well what this multi-faceted American artist is capable of. He ranges from acting to writing or music with a fluency unparalleled in the entertainment world. His is a real creative explosion, capable of radically innovating everything around him. And it is his ability to engage the public through new experiences that make him a potential game-changer in the music industry.

PHAROS AR – A brand experience in augmented reality

Pharos AR is an application in augmented reality that allows you to explore the unmistakable creative universe of Childish Gambino, listening to his songs while flying in a psychedelic environment. After downloading the app from iOS or Android stores, you can access a portal and immerse yourself in a surreal world, alone or in multi-presence, embarking on a journey that leads from the cave to space, a clear allegory of human evolution, without forgetting a famous quotation from Kubrick’s 2001. To try all this, it is not necessary to go to a Childish Gambino concert. The app can “add” the world of Pharos on top of any place, at any time, joining other people united by the same passion, in every corner of the world.

The music industry has experienced the internet age as a phase of radical transformation. The partial collapse of consolidated business models has probably not changed the way of making music in the artistic sense but it has undoubtedly generated the need for productions capable of intercepting and engaging their audience differently, following rules that were previously almost unknown. Even before becoming an entertainment tool, Pharos AR is a marketing experience based on enterprise brand logics.

This is a successful case study capable of inspiring innovative brands to produce unique experiences with a strong emotional impact, taking advantage of the novelty element (few are currently investing in this direction, Ed) to position themselves favourably in their reference market (especially if oversaturated like the musical one, Ed). The extent of the initiative goes beyond the immersive boundaries of the experience itself. Just think of the visibility that Donald Glover has achieved in the media, thanks also to his tech-friendly attitude, and the obvious “free advertising” he is receiving.

AR Development – the creative mission of Mediamonks

Interviewed by Mark Sullivan (Fast Company), Donald Glover seemed to have very clear ideas about his desire to create a fantasy world in which people can experience the music of his alter ego Childish Gambino: “Augmented reality removes the barrier between the physical and digital world”. The interaction between computer graphics and the reality that surrounds us creates a connection between people: it is the first cross-platform multi-presence application in the music industry.

To give shape to this digital revolution, Wolf + Rothstein, the agent of Childish Gambino, briefed Mediamonks’ creative minds as follows: “Do whatever you want but do it multiplayer”. If the “do whatever you want” part seems like a dream for any creative, the “do it multiplayer” almost turned out to be a real nightmare, given the ambition of the project and the constraints in the unprecedented use of a tool technically still very limited: real-time AR in the mobile environment.

Eric Wagliardo, the creative director of MediaMonks, has recently revealed how: “the biggest risk we took came from the fact that the requests actually involved a new method of storytelling. Because Childish Gambino prefers to leave his art open for interpretation, the app needed to communicate with the user in subtle ways, without spelling out instructions. The tutorial phase is already an integral part of the story, it does not precede it, and those who develop immersive content know how hard that is to pull that off. The public is very heterogeneous and the experience must be designed also for those who try AR for the first time”.

Pharos AR is therefore a “story-driven application”, unwittingly facilitated by the unexpected knowledge of Wagliardo: “The team made fun of me for being a fanboy but it’s actually true, I’ve been following his work since 2005”.

The making of Pharos AR contains important revelations by the creators of the virtual world of Childish Gambino. Thanks to Unity, a middleware capable of integrating all the necessary interactive technologies, the app could express all its complexity with a new utilisation of augmented reality in multi-presence (credit: Unity)
The key technology: ARCore Cloud Anchors

Cloud Anchor is a proprietary technology of ARCore, which allows multiple devices to share information in augmented reality referenced in the real world thanks to a cloud platform. The host-client structure on which it is implemented makes it possible to create a collaborative environment between multiple users, who can create and display content in a common space, displaying it correctly based on their location.

One of the particularities of Cloud Anchors is that, although based on a proprietary Android technology, it is also compatible with iOS. This allows developers of experiences like Pharos AR to make the app cross-platform, creating only one social AR environment for all users.

Presented at Google I/O 2018, ARCore Cloud Anchors allows users to share content in augmented reality on multiple devices. The video clearly shows how, once both devices have tracked the table, both the host user and the client user can view in real-time, in the correct position, the 3D contents rendered in the overlay. (credit: Digital Trends)
Real-time 3D content: Unity’s flexibility

As an integral part of the ARCore platform, Cloud Anchors is also integrated in Unity, the game engine used by MediaMonks to develop Pharos AR in a creative 3D environment: “We decided at the beginning of the project to use Unity because of its early adoption of ARCore and better support for mobile development”,says Wagliardo. The development of Pharos AR involved around 50 people.

Concerning the production of 3D content, one of the most interesting aspects of the work carried out by MediaMonks is the Avatar of Childish Gambino, as well as those of the people who dance inside the scenes, all made with Unity’s particle system.

Pharos AR is therefore the combination of 3D technologies that begin with the artist’s motion tracking, used to rig the model. The cosmic effects of very bright lights and colours were rendered with a lookdev that used Unity’s custom shaders and the Post-Processing Stack for the management of all effects. Due to the need to optimise the scenes, some features have been disabled in the rendering phase, in particular, shadows and anti-aliasing, whose real-time rendering is particularly burdensome, especially on limited-resources hardware such as smartphones. Jakko Van Hunen, MediaMonks’ senior Unity Developer revealed these details in the official making of the project.

The development project was implemented entirely in real-time thanks to the use of Unity, to offer a real-time user experience. In addition to the general consistency of content that creating everything within the same tool involves, a real-time workflow drastically reduces development times, making the traditional linear succession of the steps simultaneous.

Pharos, a complete immersion: from the live show in virtual reality to the fascination of augmented reality

Pharos AR is just one of Childish Gambino’s digital experiences, an episode contextualised in a precise communication strategy that exploits the potential of real-time 3D through its multiple expressions, capable of generating extraordinarily effective synergies.

Pharos’s 3D universe was displayed in a spectacular live projection mapping performance in New Zealand. Thanks to virtual reality, Pharos VR was created, allowing people to remotely assist a concert thanks to a 360° experience. A sister app could not be missing in this context: pharos.earth, available for iPhone and Android devices.

In the case of Pharos AR, it was essential to maintain a stylistic coherence with the previous work, highly recognisable by the artist’s fans. When creating the particle version in AR, “having the real-life data of Childish Gambino’s signature moves really brought the experience to life”,explains Wagliardo. “We were trying to keep this in a similar universe so that when fans see him in concerts and in the Pharos AR app, there is connective tissue across the brand”.

Pharos is a digital narrative experience that will surely be enriched by new chapters, as Glover himself suggests: “Augmented reality will play a significant role in everyday life. The goal of ​​the app was to give people just a preview of what they will be able to do”. Though this statement could sound trivial at a first glance, it takes a very profound meaning if we imagine extending the capacity of engaging the public that the music industry needs to spread its contents. According to many experts and analysts, the next step in spreading the AR multiplayer technology will take place when wearable AR systems will be marketed for the public, such as the famous AR glasses designed by Apple.

Before the augmented reality experience, Pharos’ universe was created specifically for a memorable show in New Zealand: a colossal projection mapping of 3D content on the world’s largest inflatable dome. The multimedia experience that supported the entire live performance of Childish Gambino bears the signature of Weta Digital, which created it using Unreal Engine. (credit: Epic Games)
Pharos VR is a 360° experience that allows you to virtually assist the performance of Childish Gambino on the stage of his concert. On pharos.earth a sister app is available (for both iOS and Android) (credit: Donald Glover)

For more in-depth information about the use of virtual reality in music industry, please see – Real time 3d: Music and Virtual Reality

Sources: Variety, Fast Company, Unity, Donald Glover, Mediamonks

This post is also available in: Italiano

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Francesco La Trofa

Francesco La Trofa

Architect and journalist with 20 years’ experience in 3D technologies.
Consultant to public entities and 3D businesses for aspects relating to design and communications.
Head of editorial content at Treddi.com and co-founder of Digital Drawing Days, the only event of its kind in Italy.
Actively involved in research and teaching at Milan Polytechnic.
Edits 3D STORIES for Protocube Reply.