Archive for the 'simplicity' Category

Obey the Tiny Giant

Saturday, September 16th, 2006

I love street art.


I love the posters and the stickers and the graffitis, and I specially love the black and white. I usually scan the streets looking for the surprising, rebellious kinematic images, and I don’t really care much if some of them actually are dummies of profitable merchandising or disguised alternative advertisement. Even after all this years, I still smile when I find a new manifestation of the OBEY propaganda campaign. I wonder if the internet could allow some of that, if there was a way of sneaking artwork in the space between transitions or somewhere else. If there was a way to scratch on advertisement banners or draw a mustache on the pictures of the celebrities. If there could be a layer of persistent user expression on top of everything else. I guess community generated websites can be understood to play that role a bit. They allow for free space of expression that can eventually lead to surprising mutations of street art. For example, the last time I saw the OBEY trademark was not on a street corner, it was not on a mailbox and it was not on a street sign. In fact, it could never be found anywhere in the street world at all. It was created within the web by some anonymous contributor to the Tiny Icon Factory that miraculously managed to translate the curvy shapes of Andre the Giant’s graphic portrait into a 13 by 13 square black and white little grid. I’m sure it must be hard to find such a virtuoso creator of icons. As Brent already pointed it out, there is a potential for making 2^169 different Tiny Icons, and we humans are only around 7 billion, leaving each one of us with as much as 1.0690e+41 possible icons to create. Finding the right combination of black and white squares that looks like Andre the Giant is an impressive achievement that would have never happened if it was not because of an interesting chain of events that started last thursday and fueled the Tiny Icon Factory with unprecedented mouse clicking human power. Brent told John about our Tiny toy project, John blogged it, a few people bookmarked it in, some other people digged it, and by the next morning the Tiny Icon Factory was producing more than 200 ipr (Icons Per Hour) by the creative few out of around 10000 visitors. 6999 Tiny Icons are sitting in the PLW database right now, although the Icon birth rate has already slowed down to a couple of tens per hour. All kinds of stuff, some of them silly, some of them dull, some of them clever, some of them pretty, some of them obscene, some of them brilliant, and all of them equally Tiny. One particular Icon called my attention out of the multitude, a tiny tribute to a giant man.


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:


Simplicity 101

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

a simple task: make sense, quick

Two weeks ago I was told to give my first public talk in the Media Lab. The situation was far from usual. Not only would it be the first time for me to face an audience in english, my mission was to do it by delivering a report after another talk I just listened to, with 24 hours to get my presentation ready, and around three minutes to get done with it, if possible using nothing more than the projection of a single slide, all for the sake of simplicity. Interesting. And surprisingly unstressful. I was quite nervous, of course, but less than I would have expected. I was offered a rich collection of characters as my audience: Media Lab faculty, media Lab sponsors, other students, and guest speakers. Talks, mini-talks, tiny-talks and super-talks, all organized in a way that everyone there would get the spotlight at least once. Your 15 minutes of fame, would Warhol say, or maybe just three? Anyway, it will be hard to understand what this is about until I explained a little, but here is my slide:


I was lucky. I got to talk about a romantic project I love called olpc (one laptop per child) led by famous founder and former Media lab director pop icon Nicholas Negroponte. The olpc aims to help deliver better education opportunity to the undeveloped world, and if you think a little deeper, it could be a strategy to establish OpenSource Linux as the standard digital platform of the future. The olpc project was born in the Media Lab and has now a life of its own. Chris Blizzard from RedHat delivered a very straightforward message about it to the Simplicity people. Even though he is the ultimate hacker and one of the leading forces developing sugar (the olpc core), he didn’t showoff on tech stuff or even give us a hint of how the laptop’s user interface is gonna look like. He kept himself true to the spirit of the project and described it as a goal: to deliver knowledge and encourage learning, expression, collaboration and sharing. On the real world side of things, I still don’t understand how the laptops are going to be delivered in a functional way to the children they are meant for, specially when (mostly corrupt) governments are heavily involved in the distribution process, but I really hope for the olpc project to work.

Lost in (S)hell

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

Yesterday I found a cute OpenSource SVG editor called InkScape that runs on X11. After I played with it for a few minutes I decided to explore the source. I got the thing from Subversion, checked out the readme files and bravely (or innocently), I ran ./configure in my shell, just to realize I was missing a Perl XML parser. Ok, that sounds like fun I thought. A little research about Perl modules led me to the CPAN (Comprehensive Perl Archive Network) module, a useful utility that comes with a console tool to check for and install or update Perl modules. The Perl XML parser seemed to be just around the corner, but not before I could find and install another XML parser, Expat for C, necessary to successfully run the CPAN command that installs the Perl XML parser, no problemo. That done, I ran ./configure again, just to find out I needed to upgrade my Libpng to something after version 1.2… Oh, and what about the Boehm-Demers-Weiser Garbage Collector (version 6.4+) for C++? Done! I ran ./configure again only to have the terminal spit out the following not-so-good news:

configure: error: Package requirements (gdkmm-2.4 glibmm-2.4 gtkmm-2.4 gtk+-2.0 >= 2.4.0 libxml-2.0 >= 2.6.11 libxslt >= 1.0.15 sigc++-2.0 >= 2.0.12 gthread-2.0 >= 2.0) were not met.
Consider adjusting the PKG_CONFIG_PATH environment variable if you installed software in a non-standard prefix.

Oh-oh, a handfull of obscure libraries still seemed to be missing! It was already three hours after I began pretending to build the InkScape source and I couldn’t even make it to the make command… pathetic! Another beautiful afternoon disappeared behind the window as I decided to quit on trying to build InkScape because the truth is I am in no position to understand the source code anyway.

I wanted to explore the brains and guts of InkScape in search for a better understanding of the SVG file format and the design of a simple Vector Graphics Drawing Application, like the one we are using in OpenStudio. This afternoon’s experience of mine is just another example of how much of a super complex and extremely cryptic backend can be cloaked away from the user by a seemingly simple frontend. When it comes to drawing into the machine, I want the user’s experience to resemble the conventional drawing experience as much as possible, even though the means and results of the drawing action will hopefully be different from what can be done when using a piece of paper and a brush or pencil. As long as the relation between perception and the material expression of a human gesture on a surface is well established, the experience of drawing will be delivered to the user. Complex backend implementation is unavoidable and will always be hidden from the user by a simpler frontend. The user shouldn’t have to be expert. The question is whether the constraints established by the frontend design will deliver or not a rich experience to the user in terms of function and interaction.

If you’re not the ultimate nerd and you actually read my text and visited some of the links in it, and if you are curious about computers, internet, and information-media technologies in general, you will probably feel like you’re missing on a lot. And you are, just like me. I can talk all I want about what the ultimate super simple vector drawing application should feel like, but when it comes to creating something as simple as that, I am lost and powerless. I have been using digital media tools for more than 12 years and I want to find out where they come from. Creative Techno Culture is not half as global as the products it delivers, most of the times it’s not global even in the same city.