Blind Self Portrait from Kyle McDonald on Vimeo.

Kyle McDonald’s Blind Self Portrait will make you draw a self portrait with your eyes closed. Even though I know the computer vision is tracing the face and causing the gears to move the board around, it still feels like magic. Here’s this non-living thing that can see me and analyze me and guide me to do something I could never do on my own. How is that not supernatural? Could a computer program be considered a higher power?

Long before the trademarked Ouija board there was planchette writing, also known as automatic writing. This was a process of allowing spirits to take control of your hand  in order to write out answers or messages, which were usually then interpreted by a medium. What if we thought about programmers as sort of modern-day mediums? Sure, programmers write the programs that get executed by a computer, but that seems not terribly unlike spiritual leaders (of any variety) who are praying for a particular outcome to be executed by something more powerful than themselves. In a way, aren’t programs just like prayers with logic?

Of course, this isn’t exactly a new idea. In Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs the process is likened to sorcery:

People create programs to direct processes. In effect, we conjure the spirits of the computer with our spells.

A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer’s idea of a spirit. It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of matter at all. However, it is very real. It can perform intellectual work. It can answer questions. It can affect the world by disbursing money at a bank or by controlling a robot arm in a factory. The programs we use to conjure processes are like a sorcerer’s spells. They are carefully composed from symbolic expressions in arcane and esoteric programming languages that prescribe the tasks we want our processes to perform.

The question now is, what kind of spells do we want to cast? What kind of magic should we make?

Northern Spark Notes

It was the night after Eyeo and we were chasing each other in giant twisted balloon costumes and running away from giant spirit monsters.

This was all part of Northern Spark, a city wide evening arts festival in Minneapolis. After having spent the past few days talking and looking at screen based projects it was great to see and interact with a variety of physical installations that ranged from low tech to high tech. But the two pieces that stood out were the ones that actually didn’t need any technology at all. They also would have been just as enjoyable any time of the day, which is a constraint I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Palace of Wonder by Patty Mitchell and Robert Lockheed was, as our friend Steven said “the happiest happiest time of my life.” It consisted of a large colorful motley palace (in the background above), some monsters, and these large wearable twisty balloon sculptures/costumes. When people talk about immersive experiences, they often talk about projected “caves” or like virtual reality or some other form of highly virtual experience. But you know, wearing these things and embodying the characters was the most immersive experience of the evening. They enabled participants to slip into an imaginary realm within the tangible world. Simple, fun, and highly interactive.

 Swing Hall, Swing All by Keetra Dean Dixon was playfully chaotic, and another great example of how tweaking one simple constraint can entirely change an experience. In this piece a long corridor is lined with evenly spaced out playground swings, except in this case they all swing in the same direction, front to back, in one long line. It starts out in an attempt to coordinate the rhythm of the swinging with everyone, but pretty much always ended in collisions. But it encouraged collaboration and interaction with your neighbors. And it was just a lot of fun.

Technology can definitely create some magical moments, but it’s also important to consider other ways in which we can create memorable and enjoyable experiences for people. Sometimes just putting a Kinect sensor in front of a projection isn’t enough. Not that I don’t love the Kinect (I have several Kinect project ideas in the works) but it seems a lot of the Kinect projects that have been proliferating lately are sort of one trick ponies. What can we do other than wave at the camera?


Eyeo 2012

Last week, we left the Eyeo Festival bubbling with insights, inspiration, and new ideas. And a couple new friends. This is an attempt to highlight some of nuggets that stuck (or at least the things I managed to scribble down in my notebook) before they fade away in memory. I know it’s long and wordy, some things deserve more than 140 characters of reflection…

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