The process of instilling wonder has always fascinated me. It’s such an indescribable emotion, but so fervent and real. Attempting to make a person feel wonder is a marvelous quest.
In this post, I’d like to examine a project I worked on, called The Universe of Sound. It’s something that I’ve been working on for quite some time, and although it probably isn’t as cool as I hope to make it sound, I am proud of it, mostly because of how much of my life it consumed.
In my experience, inspiration rarely comes when I call, and even more rarely takes form in logical, coherent thoughts. My mantra is always to create as much as possible and see what takes shape. Here’s the demented process that was the creation of the Universe of Sound.
The feeling of smallness can also be inspired by thinking about everyday life in different ways. Even asking nonsensical questions like ‘what does sound look like?’ can make us feel the limitations of our senses.
The Universe of Sound started as a way to find an answer to this question – a simple experiment in synesthesia. As I started to try out the Web Audio API, I tried wiring different vertices of a sphere to different parts of an audio track, in this case Burial’s Rough Sleeper.
With this little experiment, I was able to see the actual sounds personified by a pulsing space creature. The crackles and murmurs of the urchin’s spines revealed harmonic layers in the track that I had never noticed before.
After I had seen the creature a few times, and had written a few different functions to give it life, I started getting bored. I would start flying as far away from the being as possible and look at it from a distance. I wanted there to be something more – another level to its existence.
I started to construct an environment where you could explore, discover, get lost, and of course, experience wonder. At first, I created a cluster of these space objects, visualizing the music of LA record label Hit + Run.
The user would start inside a galaxy defined by one of the songs, and could stay here and examine it for as long as they chose. However, if they got curious, they could fly past the edge of the galaxy. At this point, a whole new set of songs would appear – showing that there was a whole other world for them to explore.
Creating a universe
Wonder is addictive. As soon as I examined all of the galaxies in the Hit + Run cluster, I wanted to explore further into the darkness. I wanted there to be more. Creating more, however, takes time.
I knew that if I wanted to create a universe that was inexhaustible, I would have to make the galaxy creation procedural. After trying out a few different methods, I was able to make a creation mechanism – all I had to provide to make a galaxy was a file. This meant that I could visualize songs from all over the world, and every time I visited the universe it would look different. Even today, I am still surprised and in awe of some of the creatures I see.
Today, there are more than 150 songs in the universe, and adding more involves only a few lines of code. I’d love to see some of the space creatures you find, so if there’s one that’s especially cool, send it to me via Twitter @Cabbibo.
I get sad sometimes when I think about how I’ll never see every part of the Universe of Sound – just as I fear I’ll never be able to visit Proxima Centauri – but in the end I feel happy that there is more to the universe than I will ever know.
Wonder is a fragile thing – any distraction or disturbance will shatter it. This is where the Leap Motion Controller comes in. (Took a while, didn’t it?) Although I could navigate through the universe without it, using a trackpad as your cosmic mode of transportation seems kind of… trite.
Because of this, as soon as I got my developer kit, the first thing I did was use it to fly through the Universe. When I figured out a good method of flying and mastered it, it felt magical. I could bank and roll around the Universe just by tilting my hand. I didn’t have to stare at the hateful outline of the mouse cursor, and I felt like I was flying through the galaxy, not moving my finger around on a trackpad.
It took a while to get the hang of flying, but once I had learnt it, I again knew delight. There is still distraction present, and sometimes I get frustrated at how I chose to move and stop – but it still feels dramatically more immersive than a trackpad. It’s a place where you can get lost and feel wonder surround you.
I’m constantly adding new songs to the Universe, and have worked on making a ‘stellar nursery’ where you can play with different inputs to create your own galaxy. You can try it out at cabbibo.com/nebula. I’m also working on some different methods for controlling cameras via the Leap Motion Controller.
As usual, tell me what you think about the project in the comments, on Twitter, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear what you think about it.
Awe-inducer bonus. This video shows a deep zoom into the Mandelbrot set, with the scale running from the entire universe to the width of a bacterium.