The Wilderness Downtown: Chrome experiment by Chris Milk and Arcade Fire

The Wilderness Downtown is perhaps the best browser-dominating Net art piece I've experienced since's best work more than a decade ago. An experimental, interactive film by Chris Milk, it's a tour-de-force for the Chrome browser and a lovely visual poem to accompany Arcade Fire's excellent "We Used To Wait" from their album The Suburbs. I won't give the "story" away, but I found it to be a deeply personal and moving experience.
Choreographed windows, interactive flocking, custom rendered maps, real-time compositing, procedural drawing, 3D canvas rendering... this Chrome Experiment has them all. "The Wilderness Downtown" is an interactive interpretation of Arcade Fire's song "We Used To Wait" and was built entirely with the latest open web technologies, including HTML5 video, audio, and canvas.
The Wildreness Downtown (Thanks, Jean Hagan!)

"Behind the Work: Arcade Fire 'The Wilderness Downtown'" (Creativity Online)


  1. Really? Only for Chrome? Don’t they have a 10% market share?

    I’ve always thought interoperability was desirable if you want a lot of viewers for your web stuff, but I guess they’re getting the hits regardless.

    1. “Really? Only for Chrome? Don’t they have a 10% market share?

      I’ve always thought interoperability was desirable if you want a lot of viewers for your web stuff, but I guess they’re getting the hits regardless.”

      Market share is not really relevant (especially not when you assume the target audience is everyone with a web browser), this is an experiment in what people can expect from the open standard once every major browser implements this. Works great in Chrome and Safari (both are WebKit browsers). It is also a drive for more people to adopt to the future of the web, and therefore drive more browser developers to implement HTML5, CSS3 and such technologies.

      In Google’s view the modern web would be speedy modern browsers since those will likely make people surf more thus allowing Google to show surfers more ads.

      More on topic: Saw this yesterday and took the opportunity to watch again. I really like it, it is well done.

  2. I think the need for Chrome is due to the pure HTML5 implementation. Safari, another Webkit-based browser, *might* do the right thing, but I don’t how much of Chrome’s HTML5 capacity comes from Webkit and how much from Google.

  3. I watched it in Safari 5 on my iMac and it worked perfectly. It’s meant to show off the new stuff in HTML5, and Safari and Chrome are currently the best at real-world HTML5 support.

  4. I didn’t think I would like this when I saw it a couple days ago. Just some web-tricks. However, the song and the personalization really did it for me. I’m going to send it to my brother and see what he thinks. We have so many memories of the place we grew up.

  5. I think this would have been much better had street view been available for my childhood address. The punchline? Google headquarters is about a 10 minute drive from that address. Even more surprising? This street doesn’t even have internet access beyond dial-up. Despite the fact that many top executives of huge Silicon Valley companies live on it, no internet provider has found it worth their while to dig the needed trenches to provide internet on a cul-de-sac that only has 8 houses. The local hills and tall trees don’t make satellite internet an option either.

    Luckily, my parents have a sight line to an internet-beaming microwave dish on a nearby hill run by a husband and wife company. My parents then relay the signal to one of our neighbors (in exchange for a discount on their internet service). They get great customer service from the husband and wive as well, but there are strict bandwidth limitations.

    It always amazed me that in 2010, our neighbor, a high level Adobe executive in Silicon Valley, can barely email someone a jpeg from their home computer.

  6. Considering my obsession with this album, and my broken yet beautiful childhood, this is all I need. Bring on the Labor Day family visit, MOM.

  7. Beautiful piece of work. The best creative coding I’ve seen in a while. The unfortunate part is that most people that I send it to get freaked by the pop-ups and click them all off and ruin the experience. A warning about pop-ups would definitely help.

  8. I like the song and some of the video, but the rampant popups fill me with dread for HTML5. Also, performance was pretty lousy. I wanted to like it– it’s a great concept, but as a technology preview it backfired for me.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this piece and think that it suggests a few important lessons for thinking about the future of journalism too. At it’s most basic, what the “The Wilderness Downtown” does is point out a new way of telling stories online. It is beautiful, immersive, and engaging. It calls us to participate, to follow up, to stay engaged. It challenges us, inspires us, awes us. All of these are qualities we need in the news.

    I break this down in some more detail here:

  10. Now that Arcade Fire has teamed up with Google, I don’t think I’ll ever listen to them again. Promotional FAIL.

    1. Awwww come on. The sellout card? You would deprive yourself of such an awesome band just for some terribly misplaced principle? To quote my favorite Mark Twain quote: “We all live in the protection of certain cowardices which we call our principles.” Besides, there are much more blatant ways an artist can sellout, like… Mos Def rapping for a Cadillac Denali commercial.

      1. I’m waiting for the Arcade Fire’s collaboration with Haliburton. Now that would be worth listening to.

    2. Your right, teaming up with MTV was a much better idea.
      Oh and teaming up with ticketmaster as good idea as well.
      Maybe they should have been more avant garde and made a video that only worked on Tandy 1000.

  11. Sadly I’m in a similar boat as Nylund, the street data is either incomplete, or inaccurate entirely when I enter it. Shame and a bit confusing really as I used a few addresses that I know from using the services in other contexts have the right info.

  12. Worked perfectly for me, although a bit stuttery on my rather feeble netbook, and I think I missed some of it because of the small screen. But I loved it anyway – the shots of the home where I grew up really were seamlessly worked into the whole experience. It brought a lump to my throat.

    Shame the images were taken in 2010, not in the 1980s/90s when I grew up there – but I guess Google weren’t driving cars around taking photos of us all back then.

  13. Oh, and it worked perfectly in another way too – I’m now downloading the album, which was of course the real intention of the marketing geniuses behind this. Ah well.

  14. I guess the effect is lost on us that moved around allot as kids. Most I get are bland Stockholm projects that I really have little in common with.

  15. I was Wow’ed when I first watched the video…, what a cool way to one, introduce an album and present a new style of music video. Once It neared it’s climax, I was soo moved. I was nearly in tears. I have not heard of Arcade Fire before, this was a great introduction.

  16. Unfortunately something seems to be wrong with Wilderness Downtown at this time. I tried to share it with some friends yesterday, but it loaded to 97% and then just stayed at that point. I tried it myself with the same result, although it loaded and ran very nicely several days earlier.

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