If you’ve never experienced the tiny thrill of seeing your front door on TV or in the movies, then Arcade Fire has a new video that you’ve just got to experience to believe.
Your childhood home is featured prominently in “We Used to Wait.”
At the top of the video, which went live online Monday morning, users are asked to enter the address of the house where they grew up. As the video begins to play, images of that neighborhood, the home and the streets that surround it are integrated, making it appear as though director Chris Milk (pictured left) spent some time shooting there.
The effect it produces is downright spooky, for a few reasons.
The web technology behind the video uses Google Earth’s overhead and street-level images, which are color-corrected so they appear seamless with the rest of the footage. Ethereal birds are superimposed in the sky, and lush trees grow swiftly from the ground around the streets of a user’s home.
What’s more, the action takes place not just in a single player, but in a series of pop-up windows that spread out on the screen and play simultaneously. At one point, the user is asked to write a postcard to his or her younger self, a part of a larger web of interactivity with the project that will play out when Arcade Fire tours North America.
“We Used to Wait” is one of many experiments bankrolled by Google to explore the possible applications of HTML5, the upcoming overhaul of the code that drives the internet. (As such, the video plays best in Google Chrome, though it’s also working well with Safari.)
“The web is a really interesting and innovative platform that hasn’t been used to anywhere near its potential,” Milk told TheWrap on Monday, hours after the video launched. “It’s not really respected as an artistic medium as much as it should be.”
Positive reaction to the project blew swiftly across the social-media universe, and much of the praise was not just for the video itself, but because of the way it demonstrates the internet’s potential to stretch beyond a delivery method for existing media. Case in point: You’ll never see “We Used to Wait” on MTV; its interactivity requires the internet.
Hours after it went live, the already had more traffic than his previous interactive film, a Johnny Cash video created from a composite of crowd-sourced drawings of the late country legend. Milk said the idea behind the Arcade Fire video was inspired by that experience, but instead of having individual users sweat for hours over one image that would barely impact the finished product, the hope was that a limited investment – entering your address – would impact the video in a larger way.
“I wanted to create an exploration of, ‘How can you do something that allows everyone to interact with it, and become emotionally invested in it?’” Milk said.
He collaborated with Aaron Kobland, a data-visualization wizard at Google labs, with the idea that they would re-think the music video form in a way that showcases what the internet can really do. Milk said he approached Arcade Fire lead singer Win Butler, who began sending him music from “The Suburbs” as the new album was being developed.
With nostalgia and childhood being a major theme in “Suburbs,” Milk came up with the idea of using Google Earth to make the video not just interactive, but highly personal to each individual user.
“I was thinking, how can I connect this emotionally to people?,” Milk said. “I’ve spent time going on Google maps and exploring my own neighborhood, and it’s really a cathartic experience. My biggest concern was trying to figure out how to tell a human story within that technology, and not get lost in that technology.”
Even so, the technology behind such a simple presentation could be consuming: Milk said that more than once a small tweak to the code could send the whole thing crashing.
“When we started this, there was a lot of talk about ‘That’s impossible, there’s no way we can do that.’ And after a couple of months, the programmers – who are artists in code – were able to do what we wanted.”
Use of that technology doesn’t end when the video stops playing, either – users can send their postcards into the project, where it may be sent to another user on the site, be used as background visuals on the band’s touring stage, or printed out on Arcade Fire’s “wilderness machine,” which hand-draws the postcards at concert venues on paper that’s embedded with a birch-tree seed that can be planted in your yard.
“You’re telling a story that works for every individual person because you’ve incorporated their lives into the film,” Milk said. “The data is out there to use … and we just happen to be the early adopters.”
Follow Josh Dickey on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JoshDickey