Usurper of Modern Medicine have released an Augmented Reality App for their new album, Everything is Nothing. Designed by UOMM vocalist/bassist, Steven Aaron Hughes, in collaboration with Perth surrealist painter Liam Dee and coder Steve Berrick, "the vinyl and accompanying AR App turns Everything is Nothing into an interactive experience, rendering the album artwork in dynamic 3D," and is available on iOS and Android. Hughes took time out to explain it all to Around The Sound.
First up, have you been pleased with the reception to your recently released new album, Everything Is Nothing?
Well, the release of this album was more for our own sake of finishing music that we had been working on and playing together for the last two or so years. It feels like we aren’t doing this to seek any particular praise or reception but rather just doing justice to these songs we’ve created - and needless to say, we’re really pleased with the record we’ve produced and how we’ve captured these songs. That being said, the reception that we have received about the album has been fantastically positive. The two music videos I made for the album – well, three if you include the 360 video for Ego War I put out last year - have gotten a huge amount of traction… although it's funny how little that translates into sales. I guess that’s the way of the music industry as an independent artist in 2017 - but the release of the vinyl record and this AR app may definitely change that.
Usurper has always been a creative band in more ways than one, when did the idea of this App first present itself and what prompted it?
When we were finishing the last mixes for the album the conversation about release format came up - in my mind it's really just digital and vinyl that are your options these days. I wanted to press vinyl but in a limited edition, and small numbers of a limited run meant that we could not get full colour printed artwork on the sleeves. Having worked recently on some VR and video installation projects with artists who did creative coding, I instantly thought – ‘Could we create the artwork in 3D virtual space instead of printing it on cardboard?’ That way we would only need to press the album in white sleeves with a nice-looking centre label.
One of those artists I worked with was Steve Berrick, and I asked him to come visit me in the studio, we stuck a tracking marker, basically a QR Code printed on some paper, on the centre of a record and did a test, curious to if it would work spinning at 33rpm. Our test was making a 3D teapot spin on top of a record, and it worked flawlessly - the method was proven solid - so the idea was ready to flourish then and there.
What was the initial vision for it? Has the result met or gone beyond that initial vision?
The original vision was to recreate the album cover as a 3D interactive game. Liam’s artwork was already being painted well before the AR app was even an idea but it lends itself to the concept perfectly - a skull floating above a circular island surrounded by water - so it was easy to envision how to fit it atop a spinning record as an animation. I storyboarded this whole evolving story of this skull ruling over a landscape that would transform from land, to water, a cycle of life and death, all growing and moving in time with the music. I suggested that you would pilot the skull around the landscape, collecting power ups and in turn, it would influence this cycle of life and death, spitting out creatures, humans running around worshipping it, fighting each other, magma, floods, mountains… all sorts of shit. Needless to say that this was overtly ambitious once we got into coding the game and we realised that it would take thousands of man hours and insane code to make that work correctly.
However, in our testing of some of these game concepts, the touch feature of interacting with this world, we did a test where your touch would generate a cube as a marker on the record surface. We kind of lost ourselves playing with this test for ages - drawing cascading series of cubes on top of the spinning record, the motion of the vinyl disc naturally creating spirals. It was visually and rhythmically really engaging, so we revamped the idea to work around this concept, making the game a more open-ended, creative process where the user generates patterns and shapes that emanate from the centre of the record ruled over by the skull. It's now a sandbox type of game, where the letters of the album title are down the sides of the screen, functioning as buttons, and any combination of these makes different patterns, objects and lights appear, with many options and modifiers. I’ve been jokingly saying it's Mario Paint on acid.
So it's nothing like my initial vision, but I love it all the same, I guess, because it is so unscripted and really in the hands of the user to create a unique experience, which really is more powerful and engaging in this form of media anyway.
Describe working with painter Liam Dee and coder Steve Berrick and the processes you went through?
Liam is super-talented and I was blown away by how quickly and efficiently he can bust out wonderful artwork. Funnily enough, when we first started on the project we decided to create the artwork in 3D for the game by using sculpted clay - and then scanning it into the computer as a model. After some attempts at scanning a sculpt of the skull that is featured on the album artwork, we realised the 3D scanning camera didn’t do it justice, so Liam suggested he make a bigger sculpt and we try another scan a few days later, to which I agreed. Two days later he delivers a fully rendered 3D object file that looks fucking flawless - not a clay sculpture, but an actual computer graphics model, to which of course I ask - how the fuck did you scan that so well? The answer was: he didn’t scan it at all - he sculpted it in VR using a HTC Vive (virtual reality system) and some new beta software he found. So it was still his hands that sculpted it, but he didn’t pick up a real brush or use any clay. He did it all virtually. Badass. And it was the first time I actually had seen VR used as a ‘tool’ rather than a gimmick, so that was a breakthrough for us.
Now the real mind-blowing bit was I gave this 3D model to Steve Berrick, and he owns a 3D printer, so he printed these objects that Liam made. So then the virtual sculpture, which had not been anything but digital information, suddenly became an object in the real world. When I gave the skull to Liam he lost his shit. Another penny drop moment of the virtual becoming the real. There’s been a lot of eureka / new technology / holy shit moments on this project!
And Mr Berrick, well he’s a fucking genius and at the heart of this project. The density of some of this code is wild and I have so much respect for his dedication to helping me realise my ideas and help facilitate a new direction for them when I hit the wall with my expectations when we realised how tricky this project was. An example of how intense this got - we had to consider with this project how to make objects in the game not move - so just imagine, the whole augmented reality ‘world’ is spinning with the record, it's locked to the centre label, so the entire thing is rotating around at 33rpm. Got that? So what if we wanted to make something in the game not move? Well, we thought we would just make it rotate the opposite way i.e. negative 33 rpm. But of course, a record is analog, and the program is digital, so when we did that, it wasn’t a perfect 33rpm rotation, the whole thing would shake and jitter. So we had to calculate that movement in real time and offset the rotation the opposite way… and to do that we had to use calculus.
My high school maths teacher is laughing right now, I assure you. To make that work we had to use the same sort of maths you would use to geo-sync a satellite orbiting the earth and calculate the rate of spin of the environment, and offset that in relation to a certain distance from the centre of an imaginary sphere. Quartonian maths. That did my head in. Luckily for me, it didn’t do Mr Berrick’s head in and he was able to crack that shit. So yeah, genius, he’s put up with all my stupid requests and ideas for this project and damn I love him for it.
How do you feel the images and effects now sit with and complement the music?
I won’t know until for sure until I see people play with it who aren’t the designers, but it's basically a vortex of texture, colour and chaos that can sometimes look orderly and beautiful, but other times be a complete glitchy mess - and really, our music is just like that, so in that sense it is perfectly complimentary.
Having created this, does it open up a future for further dedicated cross media collaboration for Usurper?
Time will tell. I’m excited to see what the world thinks of this Augmented Reality idea and how that may influence new concepts. Usurper has recently been a kind of vehicle for my experimental media ideas which reflect back on my own artistic career, so I'm sure next time I have some insane concept I'll look to Usurper as a method of exploration. It is an interesting entity which can be used to explore all sorts of artistic experiments and not just music.
What are your plans and hopes in general for the band looking towards 2018?
With the release of this album we’re actually going on hiatus for a while - we are following some different creative paths for the moment, most notably Cameron George, who requested time to focus on his research for the remainder of this year. As he and I started the band back in the day, I feel this is a big chapter marker for us. So we probably won’t reconvene until next year and for the moment the slate is blank and anything could happen. I’m curious to explore new methods of using music in different contexts and exploring new ways to release music and I've got some ideas brewing.
In a way, I’ve become bored of the traditional band / album / gig format and I hunger for something really new, fresh and rule-breaking. So the band may return, but I feel that if it does it will be an entirely different beast.
Usurper of Modern Medicine launch the Everything Is Nothing Augmented Reality App on Friday, August 11, at the Little Wing Corner Gallery, Subiaco, with live music from Feels, Doublethink Prism, Lana & Tactile AF. You can try out the App plus there'll be paintings and 3D-printed sculptures developed for the project on display. More at www.facebook.com/events/471686906528647