Planetary, a free iPad app from the data-artists at Bloom, is jaw-droppingly, eye-poppingly gorgeous. It analyzes your iTunes music library and visualizes it as a 3D galaxy, where artists become stars that form constellations, albums are planets orbiting those stars, and individual tracks are moons that spin around the planets. It's "music of the spheres" made stunningly literal. But according to Bloom, it's so much more than that.
After all, how much utility does a ridiculously pretty visualization of your music library really have? More than you think. We take the abstracted, list-driven interface of iTunes for granted, but it's actually a pretty lousy way of navigating the inherent complexity of your music library, with all its nested, overlapping, dynamic hierarchies of tracks, albums, artists, playlists, ratings, and the like. But that inherent complexity of the information isn't the problem; it's the presentation that gets in the way.
With Planetary, you don't just "use" your digital music library; you explore it, discover it.
"With Planetary, we were inspired by the idea that there are certain systems in nature that are already rhythmic and self-organized in an intuitive way," Bloom president Ben Cerveny tells Co.Design. "We wanted to make a connection between the appreciation of natural systems and computational systems." In other words, Planetary takes the abstract mess of your music and maps it onto an equally complex presentation -- the nested, overlapping, dynamic relationships of moons, planets, stars, and constellations -- that somehow doesn't feel complex. In fact, it feels the opposite of "computery": divinely ordered yet invitingly rich, a little coherent universe of your own making, rather than a thicket of disconnected datapoints. With Planetary, you don't just "use" your digital music library; you explore it, discover it.
And that's what makes Planetary much more exciting and powerful than it seems at first glance -- because music ain't the only kind of digital dataset that needs more human-friendly affordances. "Planetary is essentially just a hierarchical file browser, like the Mac Finder," Cerveny says. "You could point it at any data that has that kind of structure, whether it's files on Dropbox or your family geneology, and eventually that's what we hope to do with it. The metaphors in Planetary help you understand relationships." That kind of deep, almost physically intuitive understanding of objects relating in three dimensions can unlock ways of seeing and working with information -- any information -- that might not have been obvious before. That's Planetary's real innovation.
Pretty deep for a music app, eh?