Teaching the stars to dance
R&B artist NAO uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to launch an interactive music video that brings fans' zodiac constellations to life.
Rising R&B star NAO’s latest album is deeply personal, exploring her Saturn Return. In astrology, it’s viewed as a period of change, possible upheaval, and personal evolution.
“I wasn’t a follower of astrology, but as my friends and I hit our mid-late twenties, this phrase ‘Saturn’s Return’ kept cropping up in conversations so I started looking into it. The concept really struck a chord with me as my life pretty much turned on its head around that time, and I felt like I was entering a totally new phase of my life. The idea that Saturn is the planet of lessons, and some of those lessons are very painful, really tuned into how I was feeling at that time.”
NAO was so moved by these themes that she produced not only an entire album delving into them, but a book as well. And when it came time to create a visual for the song “Orbit,” she focused on making it similarly powerful and personal for her fans.
- NAO'Orbit' is one of my favorite songs I’ve written. The idea of leaving the world for a moment to take stock of everything I’d done and could do was something I felt strongly. So with the video I wanted to do something a bit different; something that matched the epic nature of the song.
In order to bring fans along on her journey through “Orbit,” NAO worked with Microsoft technology to create an interactive, personalized music video experience. It was a deeply creative yet painstaking process.
It started off with a day at Microsoft’s volumetric capture studio in San Francisco, where cameras captured NAO and a dancer performing choreography to “Orbit” were captured using Depthkit, turning their bodies into point clouds of data. Then, they used machine learning to find constellations within these movements. Technologists ran real-life data on stars through Microsoft’s Custom Vision Services until it was able to recognize various constellations (such as Orion or Ursa Major) within the point clouds. Finally, to create a customized experience, NAO worked with Microsoft to build a digital destination for “Orbit.”
The “Orbit” video experience showcases how science and technology can come together to create artwork with deep meaning for audiences. It’s NAO’s hope that by sharing her art from a period of growth, her fans can relate and be empowered as they continue their own journeys.
“I hope it gives viewers an interesting way to engage with me, my music, and the themes of my album. Using technology and choreography are both new to me, so a lot of thought and hard work has gone into this video experience. I hope it brings the subtext of the song to the surface, and offers a new perspective on the process a lot of people around my age—in fact, a lot of people of all ages—are going through. Leaving the old you behind and starting a new journey…”
“Orbit” is featured on NAO’s album Saturn, out now.