Archive for August, 2006

Obstructions 101

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

Is there a better obstruction for drawing than a 13 pixel canvas and a black and white binary/boolean color palette? I guess not. While working on our collection of smaller than life icons, Brent and I realized Photoshop was not giving us what we wanted and both ventured on building our own Tiny drawing application. Brent’s version is written in Ajax and embedded in a Rails application that already lets you load and save icons online. Mine is a functionality rich Applet that will eventually talk to Brent’s Rails repository for saving. It features an invert function, several previews in different scales, and an optional grid, all meant to enhance your understanding of such a meaningful art form. Our custom data format is a 169 character string of 0s and 1s. Longer than my attention span in a very good day, it will not fit my layout (or your browser) unless I shrink it or break it. After breaking it 13 times, the source of a typical Tiny drawing looks like this:

0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 0
0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1
0 1 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 0
0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 0
0 1 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0
0 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
0 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
0 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 1
0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0
0 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 0
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

If you stare at it long enough, you will get a headache, and you will almost see the drawing:


I Draw Too

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

the journey is the destination. dan eldon

I have been experimenting with ideas on how to build a simple drawing application. I am putting aside my technical limitations by concentrating on the pure action of drawing and it’s relation with the computer. I am looking at two components of the drawing activity that i find equally important: the process or experience of drawing, and the product or final image. I am adopting a methodology based in the setting of obstructions, inspired by the Danish filmmakers Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier on their 2003 therapy-documentary film De Fem benspænd (the five obstructions). Based on a short film directed by Leth in 1967 called Det Perfekte Menneske (the perfect human), Lars suggested him to recreate the same film five more times, giving him a set of different technical/conceptual restrictions each time. Obstructions would provide a framework for the artist, defining what he could do in terms of what he couldn’t. It is a well known procedure in philosophy to define the space of a concept by measuring the boundaries of its negative space: I don’t know what this is, but I am certain it’s not that, or that or that. This is the reason why Jørgen found it really disturbing when Lars gave him the obstruction of ultimate freedom on his third assignment. It was too much freedom! Commercial graphics applications try to deliver the illusion of freedom in a very odd way. First, they almost remove the potential confrontation of the user with the act of drawing through a series of predefined objects and procedures, and second, they pretend to eliminate errors by delivering the famous undo command (probably the most used computer-only action added to the creation of graphics, an action that actually removes the effects of an undesired action from happening at all). The undo, although a very practical feature all of us have made profit from so many times over the years, might not have much of a place in the realms of experimentation and learning. Sometimes it is by fixing a mistake with the same tool that caused it what leads to a new form. Graphics applications make it possible to standardize graphics into a purely manufactured realm where everything looks just neat, and just the same.


The first general obstruction will take the mouse for granted (or trackpad or pen-and-tablet if you want) as the standard device to input the human gesture of drawing into the computer. It makes sense, because it’s relation with space is very similar to that of the pencil, or any other traditional drawing tool. The selection of this devices immediately forces a first fundamental difference between virtual and real: the resulting shape will not be rendered in the same place where the drawing has been made. Your eyes will not be looking at your hand as you draw.


The second general obstruction is to forbid the existence of the undo command. An action shall be an action. Once you did it, you have to live with it, and try to fix it if you regret it. You can delete the object you don’t want, or splatter something else on top of it until it disappears from your sight, but you will not undo. The rest of the obstructions, all of them particular, lead to different simple prototype sketches, that I am using to test and filter potential ideas. I will call the set of these Obstructions ProtoDraw (from first, anterior, primitive, original… um, drawing). My first couple of examples for subsets of ProtoDraw can be tried online as Processing Java Applets. Processing is a graphics programming environment that makes it easier to prototype sketches for systems and applications that heavily rely on graphics and interaction. DrawToo explores the integration of the keyboard into the drawing tool, enhancing the expresive potential of the stroke and giving the remaining hand (left or right) an active role in the process of drawing, without compromising the centralized one point in motion nature of drawing. As an obstruction, it means you can’t use the mouse events for anything but drawing. The rest will be the keyboard’s realm. Ink is affected by the importance of time both as an influence on the perception of the materials and as a tool itself. In general, graphics applications respond inmediately to the user when an action is chosen, but the response to the user’s command could also be meant to happen over time, giving the user a chance to understand his requested changes in a deeper way. As an obstruction, Ink means to force action on the setting of parameters such as color, or stroke weigth. Instead of being one mouse click away as usual, the selection of a certain color will involve a process of figuring out how to build that color, and a process over time that cleans the tool so it can be filled with the recently built color.





Sunday, August 27th, 2006

I made this icons inspired by Brent.

cellphone1.png cellphone
espresso.png espresso
dork1.png dork
bikini.png bikini
milk.png milk
batman.png batman

Brain damage

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

Sometimes, all it takes to begin writing is to get a hold of an inspiring first couple of sentences. They usually carry enough momentum to get your inner voice going until you are done. Two days ago I found the right words to start writing about something that has been haunting me for a month. Then I lost them. I don’t remember if it was a strike of sunlight reflected on the water as the train moved across the Charles River, a note in a book someone read on a seat beside me, or the colorful wavelike motion of a summer skirt walking away, the subject of my writing abandoned my concerns for a few hours until a later conversation brought it back to my attention, and the famous first words were lost. I could not remember anything but the fact that I once had them on the palm of my hand, in front of my eyes, written down in my mind like the chorus of a memorable song. Now they were gone. Curiously enough, not long before I was having trouble remembering the name of Kiki Smith, feeling like I had her name in the tip of my tongue, but I just couldn’t say it. Michele laughed at me and diagnosed me with aphasia (loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage). I couldn’t help but join her laughter with a silly grin, two scoops of embarrassment and a touch of confusion.


Lost in (S)hell 2

Saturday, August 26th, 2006

I found another open source vector drawing application that runs on X11 called Skencil. This time I didn’t even bother to think I would ever mess with the source code, I just wanted to run it. But things turned out not to be that simple. Skencil is written in Python, and you require several extra Python libraries in your system (PIL and Tkinter for example) to actually build it. You require Python 2.4 (Mac OS X native version is 2.3), and you need to tweak your system a little, just in the right place where you have no clue of what you’re doing. I will spare you the details, there is a list of instructions on what to do here. Of course I could never get it to work. Next time I will just erase my drive and install Ubuntu. Just for fun.

S.O.S. Camcoder

Friday, August 11th, 2006

It took me seventeen seconds to get it out of the box, a couple of hours to fully charge the battery, and another ten seconds to figure out how to browse through the camera’s built-in computer and start recording HD video. This camcoder was recently acquired by the PLW to help us shoot and broadcast video content for our online media feed PLWire. Zeiss optics, a powerful vibration stabilizer and a 30 GB hard drive were the first three qualities that made me love it. And a very comfortable weight and size. I spent the evening shooting videos at a Media Lab barbecue party, and came back to my computer at night, excited, happy, and ready to edit. But it was not going to be that easy. A digital picture (or movie), you know, is half camera and half software. Just like non digital pictures are half camera and half darkroom chemistry. You are trading the silver gelatin and film for file formats and codecs. Even further, this time you’re also trading the videotape for a hard drive. At first sight, it would seem like the ultimate process simplification. You would not need to capture the video from a running tape anymore; you just open the camera’s hard drive and copy the videoclip files into your own. Perfect, except your apple computer doesn’t seem to understand your camera’s video format. At first, that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem: just get and install the Quicktime MPEG-2 codec. It’s just 19.99 USD at the crApple online store. Nobody needs 20 extra dollars. I feel happy to get rid of them, but my problem is far from solved. Computer is now able to understand the video, but all audio seems to be lost. Quicktime Player, iMovie, FinalCut Pro… all of them are loading two channels of stereo surround silence. Argh. No sound, no edit, no fun. There had to be something in the web to fix my problem, but I couldn’t find it. SONY, the camera manufacturer, has no online support for it’s products, and the software CD that came with the camera clearly states in tiny letters: No support for Macintosh computers. I was in serious need for help, because a big and famous Computer Graphics Convention* was coming up to Boston next week and John wanted us to cover and broadcast it live. Important PLWire mission. Nineteen hours later I expressed my frustration to Brent and Takashi (alias Mud™), and it took Mud™ less than half an hour to find and deliver StreamClip, a free media converter that seamlessly extracted the otherwise invisible audio from the camera’s clips. Everything was going to be fine. I still had to struggle with some incompatibilities between AfterEffects 6 and QuickTime 7 that were turning the manipulation of audio in AfterEffects into a big pain, but no big deal, things could be done. Funny how a simplified storage device (hard drive instead of tapes) didn’t help much because it forced a series of data conversion complications.

In the Computer Graphics Convention I found a lot of cool techniques and an overall absence of interesting content. Yeah, virtual crap looks and feels better than ever, but I think movies and games are more shallow and meaningless than they were seven years ago. Look at Pixar for example. It’s the backwards trend.

Our videos are broadcasted at PLWire and archived here. I decided to try a very rough style for them, based on the idea of interruption, jumping in and out of the scene, and enhancing interesting statements by hand held camera transitions. I almost forgot to mention another remarkable quality of the new camera that we found very useful, specially when following this interruption-rough-cut style; It was easy for me to jump around and wander with the camera because of a bluetooth wireless microphone we used on the PLWire reporters that recorded the conversations with their subjects while I could capture interesting visuals around them. The final integration of the recorded media delivered such a rich content that I sometimes hesitated on cutting fragments inbetween the conversations. I would just limit myself to decide when to jump in, when to jump out, and how to follow what they were talking about by changing the camera moods and subjects.

Personal Distortion

Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

This is not what I am.


Every time I listen to a recording of my own voice, I experience the same disturbing feeling: my recorded voice is not what it should be. I don’t think that is the way I sound at all. At the same time, everyone else’s voices seem to sound just right. Everybody sounds normal but me, and they all tell me that I sound just like the recording. There are two ways out of this confusion: nobody knows how I really sound, or something is disturbing my perception of my own voice. I am right or they are right. Majority usually rules, and things are accepted as true when most people believe they are. I don’t want to believe I am the silly voice in the recording just because everybody tells me so, but I think this time they could be right. Thing is, the sound I hear when I speak comes at me from two different sources. The exterior one -through the air- is the one everybody else gets to hear, and the interior one, traveling up my neck and head until it reaches my inner ear, invisible to the rest of the world, intimate and lonely, never makes it out of my body. The inner sound of my voice is one of those things that I will never ever find a way to share. I guess it’s fine, it’s the same for all of us. Truth is a matter of perspective; it might be that I know how I really sound thanks to the aid of recording technologies, or it could be that the real, true, dark, sexy, smooth tone of my voice is to remain hidden from the limited perception of others, just like those misterious creatures, casting their enlongated shadows into the cave of Plato.