A preview of Chicago’s new David Bowie exhibition and the tech behind it

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Credit: Chicago MCA

The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s “David Bowie Is” exhibit has Spiders from Mars, it has the Man who Sold the World, and it has Major Tom. The retrospective is filled with provocative interview recordings and performance footage and outlandish costumes and props – everything you would expect from a man who spent his early career cultivating the persona of Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous hypersexualized extraterrestrial that seduces the innocent young men and women of Earth before the planet’s eventual destruction.

The retrospective also had something else you don’t often hear in the hushed interior of museums: great music, and a lot of it.

Photo: Kevin Fitchard

Photo: Kevin Fitchard

Instead of walling off multimedia segments into separate screening or listening rooms, the whole exhibit became one big sound stage filled with dozens of music and audio recordings. And thanks to technology from Sennheiser, the MCA’s galleries weren’t reduced to a cacophony of competing sounds.

For so long the museum has been a space we experience visually, but for a retrospective of one of the world’s most iconic performers, the audio experience had to come to the forefront, said curator Geoffrey Marsh, who organized the original exhibition for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Photo: Kevin Fitchard

Photo: Kevin Fitchard

“Museums around the world have a rarely treated [the audio experience] seriously,” Marsh said, speaking at a media preview of the exhibition. “For a lot of people music is the most important cultural experience of their lives, and museums have not served them well.”

Sennheiser was brought in to do accomplish two things: to boost the audio quality of the music in the exhibition and to figure out a way to let the myriad music and audio recordings share the same physical space. For the first task Sennheiser used its remixing technology to convert old mono and stereo recordings from BBC broadcasts and other sources into 3D audio, which was then played into a large gallery to simulate what a live Bowie performance would sound (and feel) like.

The 3D Audio room at MCA Photo: Kevin Fitchard

The 3D Audio room at MCA Photo: Kevin Fitchard

For the second problem, Sennheiser turned to GuidePort, a headphone system it designed specifically to replace the audio guide terminals used in museums. Instead of typing in a gallery number and listening to a canned commentary, though, GuidePort actually uses indoor geo-location to determine your precise location. And instead of playing prerecorded tracks, it actually taps into a special museum broadcast network to draw its audio playback directly from the exhibit.

The principle is similar to the beacon technologies we’re seeing emerging in the market, but instead of relying on a Bluetooth signal to determine your approximate location, Sennheiser is diving deep down into the 127 kHz frequencies to create a radio map of the room, said Robert Genereux, business director for Sennheiser’s Guideport group.

Sennheiser’s GuidePort (Photo: Kevin Fitchard)

Sennheiser’s GuidePort (Photo: Kevin Fitchard)

The proprietary technology can shape audio zones within a room, so when you enter a gallery you could hear the audio feed of the main exhibit but as you approach smaller installments along the walls the audio switches over to the appropriate feed. Instead of using IP streaming, GuidePort uses the same unlicensed bands designated for Wi-Fi to send a broadcast recording (think FM radio), meaning timing is perfectly synched with any video on display.

I experienced it first hand, and I must say I was impressed. As I meandered into the main gallery, Bowie’s 1973 performance of “Starman” on the BBC’s Top of the Pops started wafting in through my headset before I even rounded the corner to see the main multimedia exhibit. As I walked over to smaller video displays, Starman faded out and the on-screen interviews faded in.

The Top of the Pops Multimedia exhibit Photo: Kevin Fitchard

The Top of the Pops Multimedia exhibit Photo: Kevin Fitchard

There were a few glitches – a delay here or there when approaching an installation – but I found the whole experience quite immersive. At one point I found myself singing along to “Starman” under my breath, which everyone nearby immediately noticed since without headphones the galleries were dead silent.

Embarassing yes, but if David Bowie had been there, I think he would have been proud.

Photo: Kevin Fitchard

Photo: Kevin Fitchard

The transformation of audio technology will be a key topic at Gigaom’s Structure:Connect conference in San Francisco next month. Sonos CEO John MacFarlane will speak about how your home speakers won’t just be an extension of your stereo but also a component of your connected home.

Be sure to post your favorite Bowie song in the comments below. Mine? It’s “Queen Bitch.”

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