X Ambassadors' Interactive 'Boom' App Creates an Audio-Only Music Video for the Visually Impaired

Lauren Kallen
X Ambassadors

The project is a collaboration with Microsoft and the platinum-selling band, whose keyboardist Casey Harris was born legally blind.

As someone who was born with low vision, X Ambassadors keyboardist Casey Harris knows what it’s like to be excluded from the visual components of modern music. But with his band’s latest project, he’s found an innovative workaround.  

In partnership with Microsoft, the platinum-selling rock band -- which also consists of frontman Sam Harris (also Casey’s brother) and drummer Adam Levin -- has unveiled Boom, a new mobile app that allows blind and low-vision fans to enjoy an immersive, audio-only experience of the band’s new single of the same name via “responsive, three-dimensional” sound powered by Microsoft’s Windows Sonic technology.  

Like other blind and low-vision individuals, Casey was largely alienated from the experience of watching music videos growing up -- aside from his brother's occasional narration of them. But after reaching a place of prominence in the music industry, he came to understand their true power.

“[As] our band has become more and more successful and we've had to put out music videos and that sort of thing, I've started to understand what the [appeal is],” he tells Billboard. “It's a full immersive narrative experience for a lot of videos.... It's something that actually changes to a certain degree how you listen to the music. That was sort of a revelation to me.”

Having previously partnered with Microsoft on other initiatives -- including one that had the band speaking to high school students in Nashville about the importance of accessibility and inclusion -- Casey began quietly brainstorming the concept of an audio-only music video. Luckily for him, the tech giant already had the technology to make that concept a reality. 

“I guess it was around Grammys time this year [that the band] said, 'Hey, we're looking at activities around the new album. And we have an idea that we want to talk to you about and how we can potentially create this thing that Casey came up with,” Microsoft director of brand partnerships Amy Sorokas tells Billboard. “So I said, ‘Great, let's chat and figure out what we can do.’”

The result was Boom -- now available for Android, Windows and iOS -- which allows for 3D placement of sound using Microsoft’s Windows Sonic technology in combination with each device’s axis-based motion sensors. Both Casey and Sorokas compare the experience to that of augmented reality [AR], which places computer-generated objects in real-world environments via a user’s smartphone or other digital device.

“When you rotate the device [while using Boom], it changes the direction of the audio that's coming at you essentially,” says Sorokas. “So just like you would turn your head if you were looking around at an AR experience and see different things, you hear different things."

The Boom experience begins with a brief instructional walk-through by Casey, after which listeners are prompted to choose from two different “soundscape journeys”: One created from field recordings of the Harris brothers’ hometown of Ithaca, New York, the other from recordings of the Bushwick, Brooklyn, neighborhood where their former rehearsal studio was located. To navigate lead vocalist Sam’s physical journey through the song -- in which its protagonist leaves a bad situation to embark on new adventures -- listeners simply move their phones to control the audio input.

“It was very, very important to me to make sure the sound instantly evoked the atmosphere,” says Casey, who notes the app was also designed to be used by sighted people (though he recommends they close their eyes to better experience it). For the Bushwick soundscape, he says users can expect “jangling jackhammers” and honking horns, while Ithaca will come with a gentler set of sounds. “There's a certain type of cricket [in Ithaca] that is so evocative of warm summer evenings lying out on the grass here,” he continues. “[It] just instantly took me away.”

Though the app is designed to tell a very specific story, it is lightly customizable, including a slider that allows users to set the mix between music and sound effects. And of course, the movement of the body is important in getting the full experience. “Even when all the instruments are playing, if you turn your tablet or your body a certain way, you can listen sort of between the instruments to the sounds, and vice versa,” says Casey.

“Boom” is the first single off X Ambassadors’ second studio album, Orion, released June 14 on KIDinaKORNER and Interscope Records, which was itself conceptualized around the theme of accessibility. For one thing, the yellow-on-black high contrast album art was based on a color scheme that is easier for individuals with low-vision to see. Additionally, the official cover art for “Boom” spells out the song’s title in braille.

Incorporating these elements is all part of a new focus for the band, which has only recently begun to integrate inclusion for blind and low-vision individuals into their art. The theme will be carried over to the band’s upcoming tour as well, with VIP ticket holders on each stop having the option to take part in an exclusive experience that will bring the app to life using a combination of “sound, scenery and scent.” And while Boom the app is exclusive to "Boom" the song, Casey foresees future X Ambassadors music -- and even that of other artists -- being released in the Windows Sonic format going forward.

“It feels more and more like a job that we have to do to help spread that message of inclusion and acceptance,” says Casey, who notes the band is in the very early stages of working on new music. "I think that's undoubtedly going to infuse our music in the future.”

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