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“David Bowie Is…” Augmented Reality App Review

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to visit the “David Bowie Is…” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and I was overjoyed to find out there would be an augmented reality app for the exhibit as well. One of the main things I loved about the exhibit was the carefully curated audio and large amounts of memorabilia for visitors to examine, and both of these things have been preserved in the new app, with many more artifacts added. Today, I will sharing my “David Bowie Is…” augmented reality app review as a tribute to the amazing life and work of David Bowie.

Overview of “David Bowie Is…”

“David Bowie Is…” is a virtual reality/augmented reality adaptation of the widely acclaimed touring museum exhibition of the same name. The original exhibition opened in 2013 in England and made its final stop in Brooklyn, NY in 2018. “David Bowie Is…” highlights the life, music, and style of David Bowie, a legendary rock musician and performer. The app was released on what would have been his 72nd birthday. It is available on iOS and Android for $7.99.

I tested the “David Bowie Is…” app on my 5th generation iPad Pro with iOS 12.1 and on my Google Pixel 2 with Android 9 (Android Pie). Most screenshots were taken from the iPad app.

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Using augmented reality with vision impairment

People with vision impairments can still benefit from augmented reality technology, and the “David Bowie Is…” app is no exception.

The app is designed for tabletop viewing, so users can hold their faces as close to the screen as they need to, without having to worry about having their phone on their face. If they prefer, users can also broadcast the app to an external display so they can have an even larger screen.

Screenshot of Tokyo Pop bodysuit taken on my phone
How the app looks on my Android phone

Since the app uses spatial audio, headphones are essential to get the full experience. Even if someone can’t view all of the artifacts, they will enjoy listening to the music and narration.

As with any augmented or virtual reality technology, it’s important to take frequent breaks to avoid adverse health effects such as nausea or eye fatigue. I found that taking a 30 second break every 5-7 minutes was beneficial for me, but I also get vertigo very easily.

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“David Bowie Is…” Interface

“David Bowie is…” uses augmented reality to project different exhibits onto a flat surface. After opening the app, users calibrate the camera to ensure the app projects onto a surface that’s comfortable to view. Once that is completed, users are taken to the first exhibit, or whatever exhibit they left off on.

Each exhibit has over a dozen artifacts that users can click on to show more details. Users can rotate their device to see more of the artifacts, or move the screen closer/further away to change magnification.

Screenshot of Hunger City exhibit with artifacts on display

On-screen buttons from left to right

  • Options- turn narration on/off, enable reading mode for viewing objects closer
  • Recalibration- change the position of artifacts on the screen
  • Map- go to another part of the exhibit
  • Next- advance to the next exhibit

Gesture controls

  • Single finger tap- select/deselect an object
  • Two-finger pinch- zoom in/out
  • Swipe across the screen- rotate costumes
  • Hold screen closer/farther- zoom in/out on items

Using Zoom with “David Bowie Is…”

Many of the artifacts allow users to use the two-finger pinch gesture to magnify details. However, I found that this didn’t work well for costumes or certain drawings. As a result, I enabled triple tap magnification in iOS accessibility settings so I could magnify items better. I found that the window view was perfect for examining drawings and fine details of costumes. I also use Zoom to read exhibit descriptions, since they do not support Dynamic Text or system text.

Example of Zoom function on iPad with the makeup chart for the Diamond Dogs tour

Unfortunately, “David Bowie Is…” is not compatible with VoiceOver, TalkBack, or Select-to-Speak.

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Documents and photographs

When I visited the “David Bowie Is…” exhibit in person, I had trouble seeing many of the handwritten documents and letters with small text. However, I can enlarge these items as large as I need to with the app, and I can see the information clearly. I turned on the “reading mode” so that items would be in the center of the screen when I tapped them. I can zoom in on documents and photographs either with the two-finger pinch gesture or by leaning my device forward.

Screenshot of lyrics for the song Fashion

Just for fun, I decided to test the handwriting detection feature on Envision AI with a handwritten lyrics sheet. Envision AI read almost all of it accurately, even though there were lots of scribbles on the sheet. So if you are using “David Bowie Is…” on your tablet and want to read information more clearly on your phone, this is an option.

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Watching videos

There are tons of videos throughout the app. There are interviews, music videos, live performances, movie excerpts, and more. Some of the videos play in the background of the costume displays. This can be distracting at first, but I got used to it. Other videos are available as single artifacts, so users can tap them to enlarge them further.

Since David Bowie was not afraid to experiment with light, some videos feature flashing lights, which can trigger photosensitivity. I found it easy to avoid videos that could trigger a migraine, but some people might appreciate this warning.

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Examining costumes

This is probably my favorite feature of the “David Bowie Is…” app because I was not able to see the costumes very well when I went to the exhibit due to the glass reflection. In the app, the costumes are displayed on mannequins that can be moved around by swiping the screen. On my iPad, I use Zoom to magnify details further, which helps with seeing the interesting textures of fabric. I didn’t need to use the external magnifier in Android.

Ice blue suit with yellow and red tie on a mannequin

Narration and music

The “David Bowie Is…” app is narrated by Gary Oldman, who was a close friend of David Bowie. The narration provides context for the artifacts and gives an overview of why they are important. For people that prefer to use the app without narration, it can be disabled in settings.

Screenshot of contact sheets for Diamond Dogs

Each artifact and exhibit pairs with a song or video, though some artifacts have overlapping song choices. When I was looking at the costumes, I found it fascinating to see a video of David Bowie performing live in the same costume, and found it really enhanced my experience. I also enjoyed listening to the music as I looked at the artifacts on display, and found that the song choices were perfect. For example, in the exhibit about his characters and personas, the song “Changes” played.

My favorite items on exhibit

It’s so hard to choose which exhibits and items are my favorite, because there are so many on the app, including items that are exclusive to the app. Here are some of my favorites so far:

  • Quilted suit from Ziggy Stardust
  • “Songwriting” exhibit
  • Sketches of album art
  • Live performance of “Starman”
  • Lyrics sheets with handwritten lyrics

Cut up lyrics on paper for the Songwriting exhibit

Final thoughts

David Bowie is one of my favorite musicians, and I thought that the “David Bowie Is…” app was a wonderful tribute to his incredible and action-packed life. I learn something new every time I explore the app, and I’ve been excitingly showing it to my family and friends. I hope that more museum exhibits will create apps like “David Bowie Is…” in the future and allow visitors to explore artifacts and multimedia items on their own devices.

Exploring the life and career of David Bowie with the "David Bowie Is..." augmented reality app, based on the traveling exhibit