Web and mobile

Nicola Sullivan, Issue 116/10, 01.10.2016
We review the latest websites and apps

Nicola Sullivan enters the unusual world of Björk

This extraordinary app, which bills itself as a “multimedia exploration of the universe and its physical forces, processes and structures, of which music is a part”, is a fitting addition to the Björk Digital exhibition at London’s Somerset House, on until 26 October. Made available on tablets placed on a table in a quiet room at the end of the exhibition, the app provides a somewhat grounded experience compared with the ethereal worlds created by the rest of show’s stunning use of 360-degree virtual reality (VR).

Of course, Björk’s music is central to the show, with each experience operating as a one-to-one recital by the Icelandic artist, who, courtesy of VR, can take on a variety of physical states. Biophilia is, however, a reminder that although Björk’s music sometimes feels like it is from another planet, it is in fact underpinned by expertly executed processes.

The app opens into a three-dimensional galaxy that can be rotated by touch. Tapping on the stars within the constellations allows users to explore conventional and alternative ways of making music, as well as dissect Björk songs. This is done through games and animations that move or glow in step with the music. Musical scores can be followed in real time, with notes lighting up as they are played, and visitors can hear the different components that make up each song.

While Björk and many of her creative processes will always be shrouded in mystery, Biophilia shares some of her secrets.

Zangwill’s Spitalfields

Jewish migrant life

The Jewish Museum London, which created this app with funding from the Queen Mary University of London, describes it as a visual walking tour of east London’s Spitalfields. The area was home to a large population of Jewish immigrants in the 1880s.

The app isn’t a visual knock-out – the style resembles a humble leaflet that might be given out for walking tours. But the retro design is effective as it does not distract from the buildings or the user’s experience of the physical streets. It also includes a mixture of modern and historical images relating to Jewish life, such as synagogues and soup kitchens.

A modern-day map guides you through the two-hour tour. Touching its seven pinpoints brings up images and a beautifully descriptive audio guide, which provides an insight into what life was like for Jewish immigrants, many of whom were fleeing persecution in the Russian empire.

The app’s content is inspired by author Israel Zangwill, who was born in the area in 1864 and wrote Children of the Ghetto: a Study of a Peculiar People. It is interesting hearing about what he was trying to achieve when compassion for immigrants was waning. In light of the Brexit vote, the observations are particularly pertinent, highlighting that arguments around immigration have not changed little since the 1860s. The app packs in a range of voices such as tailors, political protesters, rabbis and market traders.

Technically, the app is far from perfect. It’s clunky to use and it quit several times during the tour. But it is free and has the makings of a great educational resource. NS

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC

The website opens with a powerful slogan: “A people’s journey, a nation’s story.” The site was launched ahead of the museum’s opening in September. The first information you come across on the homepage relates to booking timed entry to the venues. You have to scroll down to find information on the collections – an area of the site that is particularly impressive. The layout is beautifully simple, unlike the unfathomable mess of many museum websites. In the “Collection stories” section, you can click through images of a range of objects in sharp focus, with the people they relate to faded out in the background. A simple “Explore story” icon takes users to a new page with further information. The rest of the collection is presented in the more traditional catalogue style.

Users can “look through the African American lens” and preview parts of the permanent collection, which are helpfully split into three sections: history, community and culture. And a guided tour of the museum’s exhibitions can be accessed on a mobile by texting a number on the website. I couldn’t get this to work, so presumably it is only available to people in the US. It’s an interesting idea nonetheless, and no doubt an effective way of gathering visitor data early.

This is a modern and easy to navigate website that illustrates the power of big images and short snappy text. NS