The New David Bowie AR App Lets You Explore His Life in the Most Mind-Bending Way Yet

Bringing Ziggy Stardust to your living room (sort of)

The app is based on the 'David Bowie Is' exhibition. David Bowie Archives
Headshot of Marty Swant

David Bowie might make augmented reality a hero–at least for one day.

To celebrate Bowie’s birthday, a new AR mobile app for Apple and Android devices lets fans explore hundreds of items from the late singer’s life. The app, a collaboration between the David Bowie Archive and Sony Music Entertainment, is called “David Bowie Is,” a title bearing the same name as the touring exhibition that’s already attracted more than 2 million fans across 12 cities.

The app—available today on what would have been Bowie’s 72nd birthday—allows users to place a virtual version of the entire exhibition inside of their home or office. Along with narration from Bowie friend and Oscar-winning actor Gary Oldman, fans can examine more than 50 high-resolution costumes along with “videos, handwritten lyrics and original works of art,” according to David Bowie’s estate’s website. The app will also feature items that weren’t on tour, which ended in July after making stops in London, Brooklyn and other cities around the world.

“The AR adaptation, a first of its kind, mirrors the physical exhibition through a sequence of audio-visual spaces through which the works and artifacts of Bowie’s life can be explored,” according to the website. “3D renderings preserve and present his costumes and treasured objects such as musical scores, storyboards, handwritten lyrics, and even diary entries all in 360-degree detail, enabling intimate ‘behind the glass’ access rivaling that of the visitors to the original exhibit, and enhanced by an immersive audio experience featuring Bowie’s music and narration, best experienced with headphones.”

Upon opening the app, users are greeted with a reminder that “David Bowie showed us that we could be who we wanted to be,” before inviting them to tour through 25 rooms and 400 objects.

It also uses spacial audio, which connects where a person walks in real life to what they hear on the app—part of an emerging trend that already has manufactures like Magic Leap and Sennheiser developing various prospects for augmented reality sound. (Upon plugging in headphones, users hear enthusiastic applause—much like what Bowie himself might have heard during an encore at a show.)

The experience is meant to take place on a table top. After scanning the surface a costume appears, followed by the voice of Oldman as the viewer’s room transforms on the screen to pitch black, illuminated only by the object’s digital glow. After that, the costume disappears, and is replaced by a black and white photo of Bowie at six years old, along with some drawings ranging from a portrait of his mother to sketches for stage outfits. After learning about his early years, the scene transforms yet again to outer space, explaining the origin story of “Space Oddity” along with the history that influenced it.

Tapping on objects might unlock an old video or audio recording, or let the user walk all the way around an object to examine it from close up. Other rooms detail other eras of the singer’s life. The experience brings fans through Bowie’s cultural influences, songwriting, recording, characters, collaborations, portraits and live performances—with each room set of course to the soundtrack of Bowie himself showing up like a dream sequence along the way.

The app costs $7.99 in the Apple App Store. It includes enough information that anyone who is even remotely curious by Bowie is going to feel like they got their money’s worth. The experience could also be a much-needed pop culture boost that’s partially prevented both AR and virtual reality from becoming more mainstream. And while both immersive mediums have been under pressure to show everything from life on Mars to modern love, further adoption could help the sound and vision of AR and VR see their golden years yet.

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.