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AI-generated Björk hotel lobby soundscape made me hear the weather - CNET

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Björk's Microsoft AI-driven musical soundscape is in New York now.Microsoft

Stepping into a hotel lobby on the Bowery, a few feet away from the New Museum in Manhattan, you can find yourself in a little space where Björk's music is playing. Lilting snippets of it, ambient, seemingly ongoing, random. I'm in that hotel lobby, listening. There's a pattern to the music. It's connected to a camera on the roof, gazing at moving clouds and birds. The composition is AI-driven. The best part is, it's invisible and it works. I stay and listen for an hour.

Björk created a new AI-generated experimental ambient musical piece in collaboration with Microsoft, called Korsafn, for the Sister City hotel (a boutique offshoot of the Ace hotel group). It's the second ambient music piece here: Julianna Barwick created the hotel's previous ambient AI soundscape, also a Microsoft collaboration, last year. The new Björk music installation should remain through the end of this year. 

Björk's Korsafn is a choral piece generated by algorithms that study patterns of clouds and birds from a rooftop camera, but will also evolve over time, becoming a data-collecting AI experiment for Microsoft as well. Since the installation is reflecting information from the sky, it's almost like an audio skylight, or a data-driven wind chime. The ongoing computer vision project will also train Microsoft's AI to better recognize dense and fluffy clouds, snow, rain, clear sky and birds in different lighting and seasons.

I'm still spiritually unwinding from a noise-blasted week of CES in Las Vegas, and this little moment with digital Björk was something I could have used out in the desert. Ryan Bukstein, Atelier Ace Hotel's vice president of Brand, says ambient AI-driven soundscapes like this could be a future model for hotels and other spaces, instead of repetitive playlists of familiar songs.

I love Björk. I love the idea of being immersed in a soundscape by Björk.

Bukstein says the project started when Björk was performing at The Shed in New York last year, and when 50 rooms of the Sister City hotel were home to Björk's Icelandic choir for a month, while performing the critically acclaimed concert Cornucopia. "They rehearsed in the restaurant. You'd come in here, and the choir would be singing in the restaurant, they'd be hanging in here all day, they put their mark on this space." While the Björk project wasn't recorded at Sister City, he says, "I'd like to feel like they took some of the vibe."

Korsafn is lovely and low-key, and honestly, it just blends into the background. It's nothing wild, but it fits the hotel. It's kind of fascinating in that regard. Unlike Microsoft's AR installations, like a 2018 Mel Chin HoloLens-connected experience in Times Square, this doesn't require a lot of setup (or, failures). It just is.

Video: Microsoft HoloLens 2 is now available: This is what it does

After an hour, it didn't get annoying, or too repetitive.

Amy Sorokas, director of Strategic Partnerships at Microsoft, helps produce musical art projects using Microsoft tech, with artists ranging from Brian Eno to Muse. She explains that the live-updated AI, using computer vision to analyze the hotel's rooftop camera, "can find different kinds of clouds -- cumulus, nimbus -- birds, flocks of birds, a single bird, a plane. And what we did is, we're now continuously training our vision service. So we're able to have it learn over time from the roof camera and the feed. We can continuously train, so it will learn more about clouds, it will learn more about the seasons as they change, so next year, as the wintertime comes again, it'll be like, 'Oh, yeah, winter is back again,' and now the clouds have these sort of shapes and varieties, and the sun comes at these times. The composition is going to learn and generate differently based on that change in the knowledge level of the AI." 

The composition is choral, pulled from a variety of recordings and applied to what the camera sees, like an audio map. I'm sitting in the lobby, which has no skylight, and wondering ... what's passing by to elicit that sudden, rising voice? A bird, maybe?

Weirdly, I'd love something like this in my living room, while I'm reading. Or an AI-driven ever-changing soundtrack for my headphones, as I'm moving and working and commuting. If you're curious to listen, Sister City is streaming the soundtrack live along with the rooftop camera feed that the music's connected to. 

Or, you can visit yourself. I'm looking forward to someday generating music based on my life, in my ears, on my New Jersey commute.

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Originally published Jan. 17. 

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