“This is not a concert; this is church,” Donald Glover, the man behind Gambino, explained.
While he may not be thrilled by fans who treat live performances as an excuse to take selfies, Glover is now encouraging the Gambino faithful to grab their phones and download PHAROS AR — a new augmented reality app released Wednesday (April 24) for Android and iOS users.
Billed as “the world’s first cross-platform, multiplayer AR music experience,” the app is but the latest innovation for Glover following the Coachella premiere of Guava Island — a film that he secretly shot with Rihanna in Cuba last summer. Throughout his career, Glover has always questioned the boundaries that define an artist, a stance that has earned him acting and directing Emmys for his critically acclaimed television series, Atlanta, as well as five Grammys (including this year’s record of the year and song of the year) thus far.
While the track “Algorythm” has been a staple of Gambino’s live performances during his This Is America tour, the app will offer fans their first opportunity to hear the song from the comfort of their own home — or at least from a portal to another dimension that opens on their mobile phones.
Developed by MediaMonks, PHAROS AR uses the real-time game engine Unity to take users on a journey into a cosmos of tropical petroglyphs. By utilizing Google’s ARCore Cloud Anchors technology, multiple players in a single location can actually explore the space together to unlock Gambino’s latest song.
“It’s not a music video,” says Sarah Stumbo, tech producer of media & entertainment for Unity. “It’s more like a music experience.”
According to Stumbo, Unity was first approached by Glover’s management team back in 2017 with a general idea of what they wanted the app to be. Previously, the company had worked with Gambino and Microsoft on PHAROS — a three-day virtual reality event set inside a dome at California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Glover’s affinity for creating multi-sensory art is well-established: In 2016, he released a 360-degree VR music video for the Awaken, My Love cut “Me and Your Mama” and in 2017 he offered fans the chance to buy a virtual-reality vinyl record.
Despite Glover’s history with the medium, Stumbo says there’s never been anything quite like PHAROS AR.
“We think that an experience like this will really help catapult the industry forward,” she explains. “This is the world’s first cross-platform multiplayer AR experience. Maybe it’s not the world’s first AR music experience, but I don’t know if there’s ever been anything this big.”
For research, the development team attended a Gambino show to ensure the art and build of the app would align with Glover’s vision. While developers were encouraged to be creative, Stumbo notes that Glover offered input throughout the process and was ultimately responsible for final approval. Described as a continuation of the narrative that has linked several Gambino projects together, the app is ripe with easter eggs for those willing to find them. For example, within the world of PHAROS AR, one may notice palm trees — a central aspect of the scenery in Guava Island.
“When you see him in concert or see his music videos or his new film or the AR app,” Stumbo says, “it kind of all ties together into the same universe.”
In typical Gambino fashion, the app is light on instruction and instead encourages users to explore the augmented terrain of PHAROS AR on their own or with up to three friends. While no headsets are required to enjoy the experience, Stumbo does recommend a good pair of headphones to fully appreciate the spatialized audio loops that eventually build to the full track.
Most importantly, perhaps, the app allows Gambino fans across the world to experience Glover’s vision without the need to spend big on airfare, accommodations and concert tickets. Similar to Guava Island — which premiered in a tropical-themed tent at Coachella but was quickly made available to fans on Amazon Prime — PHAROS AR is a way for anyone with an iPhone or Android to spend a few minutes in the surreal mind of Glover.
“A lot of Donald’s fans can’t to travel to see him in concert,” Stumbo says. “They can’t get to a PHAROS event all the way in New Zealand. That’s a really expensive plane ticket. This is a much more accessible way to get the PHAROS universe into the hands of fans.”