Archive for the culture & media design Category

Computers are already visual, we just forgot

Posted in culture & media design, tools on January 8, 2014 by visualraccoon

“No, no, you don’t understand! Computers are basically about binary numbers and then we program them by putting layers on top of the raw binary to finally display text and visual images.”

Bullshit. Computers are really about spatial patterns of voltage storing elements which we then interpret as bits in the binary system.

When a computer is designed, somewhere some guy has a big chart on his wall showing the mapping from the spatial pattern into bits.

Which probably started out as a diagram on a white board which was erased many times before they had the bit storage elements far enough apart to prevent heat confounding.


So the computer started out as an analog map on somebody’s wall.

Computers are inherently spatial and then we cover it up.

Digital “ones and zeros” are an abstraction! Just a way of interpreting spatial patterns of voltage differences. Probably goes back to Alan Turing and his machine. And the damn tape, so easy to interpret in the bitwise way (great work on Enigma, Al, but the tape is crap).

Imagine instead if back at that crucial time in history someone had used the far more powerful* and already positional lambda calculus of Alonzo Church to directly interpret the spatial patterns and compute with them.

Then computers would also be usefully and overtly analog computers. That is, electrical computers would be analog computers (which they already are (so deep is the mis-thinking it perverts the very terms of our discourse)).

If only. And then you wouldn’t have to be reading this silly diatribe. And visual thinkers wouldn’t exist in a world of pain when they try to use computers let alone program them.


Q: OK, but is spatial the same as visual?

A: Well, close enough for a rant. You bet.

Consider a creature who can see into the infrared really really fast and really really small. That guy can watch the patterning of the bit storage elements in real time as they are read and written.

* Q: Since Church and Turing proved that the lambda calculus and turing machines are both universal computational engines, how can the lc be more powerful?

A: Usefully powerful to a human. Whenever someone says some system is “Turing-equivalent”, it means you don’t want to have to actually use it for anything.


Interdisciplinary Work –> good luck with that!

Posted in culture & media design, visual languages on August 23, 2013 by visualraccoon

Interdisciplinary work is like the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody wants to go out in the lightning storm.

Scott Kim, more than anyone I know, has served his time in the rain, suffering often the slings and thunderbolts of outraged categories.

Fortunately for him he not only persevered but thrived and got his interdisciplinary PhD. And fortunately for us, he has written a pithy summary of the issues, with graphic marginalia. From page 10 of the Introduction to his Viewpoint Dissertation:


On interdisciplinary work

Curiously, the word interdisciplinary exists only as an adjective. There are disciplines, but no interdisciplines. It is as if interdisciplinary people must forever wander homelessly. Thinking further about the nature of interdisciplinary work, I realized that the word “interdisciplinary” has several shades of meanings.

Castles. Disciplines are private, walled kingdoms sitting on neighboring hills. Occasionally, bilingual messengers carry news from one kingdom to another. The walls were originally built to defend territories. Nowadays kingdoms grudgingly accept that they must coexist.

Cracks. The world of knowledge is cut up into categories. Categories bring a sense of order and stability to an otherwise chaotic world. Some people don’t fit the categories, but instead fall between the cracks. For them we invent a new category: people who can’t be categorized.

Bridge-builder. Disciplines are islands separated by the sea of ignorance. Interdisciplinary people build bridges between islands so that others may cross. Without such bridges, passage between islands is difficult. One day, perhaps, all islands will be connected.



Fence-sitter. The boundaries between disciplines are marked by fences. Without such fences, we could never tell who owned what territory. Each person must decide where he or she belongs. Interdisciplinary people sit on the fence, never deciding which side to commit to.


Hats. Throughout the day, we all play many different roles: parent, child, teacher, student, worker, friend, creator, performer, viewer. Each role comes with its own hat. Interdisciplinary people wear several hats at once. Too many hats make balancing difficult.


Viewpoint. I named my project “Viewpoint” as a reminder of the subjective nature of perception. There is only one world, but many ways to view it. Different frames lead to different interpretations. Interdisciplinary people are able to switch points of view.

Differing viewpoints exist not only between disciplines but within disciplines. In computer science, a digital circuit designer views programming as a way of telling a computer what to do, where as a programmer views digital circuitry as a way of implementing an algorithm. In graphic design, a production artist views a design concept as way of figuring out what to do with tools, whereas a graphic designer views tools and techniques as ways of implementing a design.


All text and graphics © 2013 Scott Kim. All rights reserved.

The Viewpoint Thesis

Posted in culture & media design, visual languages on August 14, 2013 by visualraccoon

This is a visualraccoon Perspective on Scott Kim‘s very graphic and revolutionary exploration,

Viewpoint: Toward a Computer for Visual Thinkers

What would it be like to go back to visual first principles and take a fresh look at graphic user interfaces?

The Viewpoint Thesis is that a small number of pixel manipulation primitives can be defined such that if they are bound to keyboard and mouse actions it is then possible to build a simple text-graphic editor by drawing it, and that that editor can be used to draw-build itself.*

The Viewpoint Thesis & Editor is part of a larger project founded on the hypothesis that:

“Only by treating the screen itself as a first class citizen will we be able to build computers that are truly for visual thinkers.” Scott, 1987.

This project includes building visual programming languages for such thinkers.


* Full disclosure: “The Viewpoint Thesis” phrase and definition were made up by the raccoon and are not necessarily endorsed by Dr. Kim; the contents of this page have not been reviewed nor approved by Dr. Kim.

Here is Scott’s own introduction to Viewpoint, with historical context and a link to his PhD dissertation.

And let me repeat: this work is not merely disruptive, it’s revolutionary. When you have bacon and eggs for breakfast, the chicken was disrupted, but the pig was revolutionized.

Oh, a little too graphic for ya? Exactly!

“Graphic: Precisely and clearly expressed, leaving nothing to implication. Opposite of {implicit}.” from The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48 (gcide)



If you think that Logic, Graphics, and Computing should not play together, let alone be intimate, then this aggressively interdisciplinary dissertation may not be for you.

However, if you find LGC — the Long Glorious Cord — to be inherently interesting, then read on and enjoy.

“It’s graphics, Jim, but not as we know it.”

World without guitars

Posted in culture & media design, tools on June 19, 2012 by visualraccoon

World Without Guitars is just like our world, only guitars (and related string instruments) were never invented. It serves as a control reality for those undertaking the physical design of new instruments. And also as a cautionary tale for those tackling the necessary concomitant social engineering in order to bring about the cultural acceptance of a new instrument.

Our hero Guitar Boy is visited in a dream by the inter-dimensional ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughn. GBoy is a superb craftsman/electronics guy, and so he makes a Strat-like guitar (yes, and amp to go with it, OK?). Then he shows off his new instrument at MakerFaire. Of course, he can’t actually play it himself beyond plucking at a string and getting a note. Or, occasionally, he remembers the one chord ghost SRV taught him, which brings his left hand into play to modulate the effect of a pluck. Not real impressive, but a totally convincing demo in the eyes (and ears) of GBoy. He’s ecstatic, and very hopeful to boot.

Now he knows plucking a note isn’t the same as the music he heard SRV play in his dream, but he assumes if passersby have heard one note, then they will be able to imagine more than one, and played in a pleasing sequence.  He assures them, “Oh, don’t worry, people will be able to learn to play it really fast, and the result will be wonderful!”


No deal. No one is buying.

It doesn’t matter what he says, nor how pretty the so-called ‘guitar’ he made is, he always gets the same reaction: “No one would be able to play that thing.”

“No human could ever learn,” they go on, “to play that ‘guitar’ in the way you describe, coordinating the so-called ‘chording hand’ with the ‘picking hand.’ And doing that ‘picking’ at the rate of five or ten notes per second? Are you insane? People’s hands and brains just don’t work that way.

“Besides, even if they could, why would they want to? The music you describe sounds hideous.”

Finally, if all that weren’t enough, there is one other problem with this ‘guitar’ that GBoy has invented. It’s made of the wrong stuff. When pushed, a surprising number of people reveal an innate prejudice against the basic technology of the instrument itself.

“Sorry, but I just hate wire and wood,” they say.



Footnote 1. Reason for ‘wire and wood’ phobia in World Without Guitars:

WWG is mostly just like our world, sans guitars, but it does differ in other minor ways. For instance, a lot more of the land is similar to Texas, with vast open plains and lots of cattle. Thus everyone has bad childhood memories of being abused by barb wire on wooden poles (and also a default state of kinda cranky counta there’s no SRV, one of the really good things about our Texas).

So horrible are these memories that they shrink back in terror when presented with an instrument made out of wire and wood (similar to the way many people in our world react when ‘confronted’ with a computer-based instrument). They can’t imagine a non-hostile use for something made of that shit, let alone doing art with it. “Are you kidding? You f***ing pervert!” they yell. Then more yelling, torches and pitchforks ensue.RIP Guitar Boy’s vision of a new art form based on a new instrument.



Footnote 2. Improvisation may be tough even in a world with guitars:

More bad news, folks: improvised music proved impossible.



Posted in culture & media design, performing graphics, tools on April 29, 2012 by visualraccoon

LoopyCam is a visual performance instrument designed for improvisation.*

But the improvisation is of a very unusual kind — it is improviation of context not content. The content is taken from the immediate environment by the loopycam artist and then re-presented on a large video screen in front of the audience.

In that re-presentation, the LoopyCam artist modifies the video image in realtime using the vocabulary of both cinematography and video editing. This combination makes available traditional effects like cut, pan, and zoom — plus many other effects unique to the LoopyCam. For instance, moving, resizing, and overlapping of mulitple constantly-looping video clips (hence, LoopyCam).

And, these improvised modifications are often done in time to the music — that is, they can be done so quickly as to keep the beat.

Or as Tim puts it, “The low latency of LoopyCam allows the artist to align visual transitions and loop lengths with the music, and also with the movement of dancers.” **

Tim sits stage front to capture and re-present the action at SubZERO 2010.

Conceptual Overview of the major LoopyCam controls***


Tim on LoopyCam accompanying Rick and Bill Walker
at the SubZERO 2010 Looping Lounge

Leslie jams with Tim for the justly famous paper crumpling riff

Technical details


Live drawing can also be a source of environmental content for LoopyCam.

*Yeah, I know — all visual instruments should be so designed, right?! Yet in fact very few are <sigh>.

Tim would want me to tell you that the instrument pictured above is in fact LoopyCam1 and that there is now a new improved LoopyCam2, see .

** Tim goes on to explain, “The low operational latency (the time between pressing control buttons and seeing their visual effect) allows the artist to precisely control visual transitions and loop lengths in order to match the timing of the music.”

*** NOTE: This controls diagram is only conceptual , to give a general idea of operating LoopyCam. The diagram shows a subset of the approximately 30 moves available, and Tim would probably disagree that the ones I have shown are “major.”

Space Palette — A New Instrument for Music and Visuals

Posted in culture & media design, performing graphics, tools on April 27, 2012 by visualraccoon

Space Palette performance at STEIM in Amsterdam April 2012

Conceptual Overview of how hand motions in the holes control music and graphics*

Full disclosure:

The original idea and intial sketch for the oval space frame design by the raccoon.

This is only a fan page; the official Space Palette home page is (natch’)

“Space Palette” is a trademark of Nosuch Media

Video from House Concert, San Jose, Feb 2012

Space Palette at Sea of Dreams, New Years 2012

The well-lit SP relaxing at home

For Tim, performing on the SP is the next best thing to watching others enjoy it (photographed by Rachael Torres).

*NOTE: The control diagram is only conceptual, to give a general idea of correlation between hand motions and music/graphics output. For example, in the current instantiation, graphics controls are overlaid onto the major music controls, so that one hand motion in a large hole will generate both music and graphics.

Improvised music proved impossible

Posted in culture & media design, performing graphics, tools on April 22, 2012 by visualraccoon

A couple of years ago the raccoon was asked to chair a panel on “New Media.” The speakers were all amazing and gifted hacker/artists. To chair such a group was a real and unexpected honor (and, I screwed it up; more on that later).

To start things off and incline the tone of the panel in the direction of my obsession — the performing of live visuals — I enthusiastically proclaimed and promoted the idea of “Blues Graphics.” “You know,” I said, “visuals improvised live like Stevie Ray Vaughn playing the guitar.” The phrase had sounded so good to me the day before, screening well in my mind’s eye (the same display on which also appears footage from the imaginary Veli’s Graphics Bar in West Oakland). So I used the chairguy’s one minute intro to play SRV’s version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” while at the same time showing a moving montage of the outside of Veli’s. Thus setting the scene for joy and sharing.

Well, as it turned out, for me, not so much.

But first, the panel itself went well, and all panelists did outstanding presentation/demos.

However, afterwards, while standing around in post-panel conversation, I was informed that improvising graphics ala SRV on guitar was simply not possible because, “The parameter space is too large to map onto the control space.”

Yikes. How embarrassing for me.

And I didn’t even know exactly what that sentence meant. But it was delivered with such authority that I was paralyzed in cognitive thrall, stammering some response I don’t even remember. Then I slunk away to lick my cerebral fissures and contemplate the errors of my visually obsessive ways.

But later that day, far from the crowd and upon reflection, I realized that the slogan & dictum was bullshit.

Here’s the proof: simply substitute a well known human activity, musical performance, for visual performance. With good ol’ SRV as my counter example.

Because, see, you could say exactly the same thing about musical performance. First, think of all possible sounds, and then consider the possibility of designing some kind of instrument to make them. Pretty hard, huh? Among the many problems is the large number of parameters to control that incredible variety of sounds. Pretty big space, right?

But then some bozo comes along and says he wants to make that instrument, and then proposes to play it in real time, maybe even improvising with it.

You would have to tell him, “I’m sorry, but such a performance is not possible because the parameter space is too large to map onto the control space.”

End of discussion.

Good thing you were there to clue him in, saved him a lot of trouble.

Nor can bumble bees fly.

So, here’s why music can be improvised:

Indeed, the space of all sounds, it’s a large parameter space. And let’s throw in more parameters, timing. How many ways are there to sequence and sustain sounds over time? Double yow. But, I hadda throw in time, cause that’s where performances take place.

However, look folks, we’re simply talking frameworks here. They restrict and limit possibilities to enable creativity. Inventing within constraints, art is painting with restrictions, blah blah blah

So we can use the Western diatonic scale to trim that infinite sound space, and on temporality impose time signatures. Narrows things a lot. And then invent an instrument which further narrows the possible sounds, and which maps the result on a control space (strings and frets, say). In fact, the guitar is exactly a working model of how to map the trimmed parameter space onto a playable control space.

Bumble bees can fly, and visuals can be improvised without need of randomization or algorithmic slaves.

Visual SRV lives!