Beatie Wolfe at Nokia Bell Labs: Art Meets Technology in an Extraordinary Performance

Photo: Beatie Wolfe in Bell Labs' anechoic chamber. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Beatie Wolfe in Bell Labs' anechoic chamber. | Esther Surden was invited to an unusual event that took place in early May at Nokia Bell Labs (Murray Hill). Beatie Wolfe, British singer-songwriter and digital art-innovator, was releasing an album called “Raw Space,” in collaboration with Nokia Bell Labs and interactive creative firm Design I/O (Cambridge, Mass.).

For Nokia Bell Labs, the event continued its legacy of combining art and music with technology, epitomized by the Labs’ human digital orchestra and its Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) program. Started 51 years ago, E.A.T. fosters collaboration between artists and technologists to expand the possibilities of artistic expression and technical innovation. The famous artists who have participated include Andy Warhol and John Cage.

Thinking about music and art lets Bell Labs technologists make connections and pursue ideas they might never have considered if they weren’t exposed to this kind of out-of-the-box input.  Bell Labs scientists work differently from those in other technology companies.They visualize the future, then originate the technology that will make it happen, has been told multiple times.

Photo: Beatie Wolfe singing with augmented reality illustrations around her. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Beatie Wolfe singing with augmented reality illustrations around her. | Esther Surden

Now Bell Labs has given Wolfe a forum for reimagining how the liner notes and cover art for a vinyl album would appear using tools of today’s technology.

Wolfe described her intentions best when she said, “For ‘Raw Space,’ I wanted to create the antithesis of our current streaming experience, which is somewhat compressed both sonically and creatively, or, rather, to create what I feel streaming music can be, and really celebrate the world of the album — its artwork, arc, narrative, music — in a fully immersive and multi-sensory way, which has the effect of placing the listener at the center of this dynamic world.

“Launching this out of one of the world’s quietest rooms has the effect of immediately instilling a sense of ceremony into this experience, both quieting the ‘noise’ around and allowing the listener to hear the true sound of sound.”

The quiet space Wolfe was referring to is the Nokia Bell Labs’ anechoic chamber. According to the Labs, “the Murray Hill anechoic chamber, built in 1940, is the world’s oldest wedge-based anechoic chamber. The interior room measures approximately 30 feet high by 28 feet wide by 32 feet deep. The exterior cement and brick walls are about 3 feet thick to reduce outside noise.

“Large fiberglass wedges mounted on the interior surfaces of the chamber absorb echoes or reflections. The wedge-shaped absorbers are 4.5 feet long and 2 feet square at the base. Most current anechoic chambers utilize the alternating wedge pattern that was first used in the Murray Hill chamber. The wedge shape was chosen to ‘impedance match’ the absorber to the surrounding air. The shape can also be considered to be a waveguide whereby all incident acoustic energy is internally reflected into the wedge. The alternating pattern was chosen to give more uniform angular absorption. The chamber absorbs over 99.995 percent of the incident acoustic energy above 200 Hz. At one time the Murray Hill chamber was cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s quietest room.”

About 20 people entered the chamber and had the opportunity to listen as Wolfe performed songs from her album accompanied only by her guitar. Walking into the chamber was a bouncy experience; you had the sensation of walking on air. Those closest to the center of the chamber heard the purest tones.

Attendees were also treated to additional songs from Raw Space embellished with a 360-degree augmented reality (AR) display of the performance, courtesy of Bell Labs and Design I/O. During the AR portion, flowers, vines, moths and other things grew and floated around Wolfe as she sang.

Photo: Beatie Wolfe with Marcus Weldon, president of Nokia Bell Labs. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Beatie Wolfe with Marcus Weldon, president of Nokia Bell Labs. | Esther Surden

There was also a “fireside chat” between Wolfe and Marcus Weldon, president of Nokia Bell Labs. Weldon asked Wolfe to explain why she combined the AR overlay with lyrics that appeared as written words coming out of her mouth.

 “The idea was to have all that rich content that you would have in a record. In some ways vinyl was the perfect format because it had this sonic depth, it had all of that artwork, liner notes and lyrics that really informed your experience.”

With Raw Space, Wolfe said she wanted to pull all of those elements together in a seamless fashion “that hopefully engulfs the listener and makes them feel like they are being transported to the world of those tracks.”

Weldon noted that the songs were reduced to their anechoic notes, minimizing acoustic noise and maximizing the visual overlay. Wolfe responded that this gave them a stripped-down quality that ultimately resonates better with people, and that the visual component helps explain the emotional meaning of the tracks.

Photo: Attendees were also able to experiment with AR and VR experiences. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Attendees were also able to experiment with AR and VR experiences. | Esther Surden

Weldon explained how the sound applies to Bell Labs’ work, saying that in networking the sound is captured as pure sound, but then layers are added back into it. He noted that Bell Labs is working on challenges involving the sense of touch. “There is another part of this that is part of AR and VR called ‘chain of persuasion,’ which says you need to physically experience something to believe you are in a virtual world. The anechoic chamber is a version of that.”

Some of the AR experience Wolfe presented used visualizations of moths, and Weldon observed that if you put your hand out to touch a moth, you should feel the fluttering of its wings. While that wasn’t part of the AR experience here, Bell Labs is exploring how to make this happen in unscripted moments. “This is part of the journey we are on to allow the physical world to be mapped through digital, enhanced in some ways, but also reduced in some ways to its purest essence,” he said.

Photo: The augmented reality technology setup outside of the anechoic chamber. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
The augmented reality technology setup outside of the anechoic chamber. | Esther Surden

Wolfe told the audience that with Raw Space she wanted to make the vinyl album for the 21st century. “When I first played Raw Space to Design I/O, it was acoustically every track as you heard it, with guitar and voice. After every song they would have a very strong visual landscape or I would have a strong visual idea. What was nice is that we always seemed to be on the same page.”

In addition to the series of live demonstrations, the Raw Space experience was presented online starting on May 5, 2017 as a 24-hour, week-long, 360? real-time streaming experience. A record played, streaming live from the anechoic chamber, and was available to anyone who logged on. Words, colors, and fantastic visions appeared, as “synched visuals created a 360 degree world of imagery to complement each song in full augmented reality.”

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