Monthly Archives: November 2008


Posted by PH on November 26, 2008
Uncategorized / No Comments

We’ve all seen that bit in Minority Report where Tom Cruise is using that gestural computer interface, grabbing images, flipping them around, swiping them aside? Well, 6 years on and a very similar system is for real:

The main man behind the g-speak system seems to be one John Underkoffler, who was—surprise, surprise—one of the technical advisors on Minority Report. There’s lots more information, including a historical overview of g-speak, on the Oblong website.

Is this the future of computing? No, I don’t think so, not for us plebs. Gestural interfaces will become the dominant paradigm, but mainly in the form of touch screens. There will be a place for this type of spatial operating environment—as they call it—but I would imagine it will be limited to military/industrial applications. Oblong themselves say the system is suited to:

  • analysis of large data sets;
  • operation of three-dimensional interfaces;
  • construction of efficient multi-user collaborative applications;
  • integration of large screens and multiple computers into room- and building-scale work environments;
  • development of large-scale applications that run interactively across enterprise networks.

I reckon that’s about right. The system only makes any kind of sense with the huge screen(s).

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Posted by PH on November 16, 2008
Music & Technology / No Comments

Bloom is a recent application for the iPhone developed by Brian Eno and Pete Chilvers. The press release describes it as “part instrument, part composition and part artwork”; in practice it’s an ambient music generator that allows the user to input notes via the touch screen. These notes are then a) displayed like ripples on a pond and b) taken up by the programme and variations are generated over time.

I’ve been playing with the thing all week. Despite being very simple to use, it’s very good at what it sets out to do. It’s hypnotic and relaxing, and does actually create convincing ambient music. There is only one sound available, a sort of cross between a piano and a harp, but there are subtly shifting drones that hover in the background as the melodies drift in and out… There are also a set of ‘moods’ that seem to change the scales used by the ‘pieces’:

There’s obviously a lot of very clever stuff going on behind the scenes. Presumably all the sounds are generated in real-time (i.e. no samples) which gives the music a very rich and warm sound. Knowing Eno, I’m guessing it uses an FM synth, probably built in Max/MSP or PD. And although the sequence generator seems to be little more than a delay line at first listening, if left alone the programme will generate endless variations on even the most simple of inputs.

I left it running today for about four hours, and it was still happily evolving when I turned it off. Running the programme this long did highlight one thing: it drained the battery in a couple of hours. Here it is in action:

I love it. It’s not a toy. It’s not a gimmick. Bloom actually turns the iPhone into a viable and meaningful instrument that allows you to produce some very listenable and sonically high-quality ambient music. I found it extremely satisfying to be able to tap out a quick sequence, let that evolve for a while while I went about my business, and then ‘add a new part’ just as I was passing by. Or shake it and start again. Whatever…

As with RjDj, it suggests a completely new type of relationship with both the music and with the technological device, and you find yourself operating somewhere between the seemingly incompatible realms of recorded and improvised musics.

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One final point: there has been a lot of comment about Bloom being a rip-off of Electroplankton (which has been available on the Nintendo DS for ages). This is just silly: I don’t particularly want to diss either Electroplankton or the DS, but, as this short video demonstrates, we’re talking completely different kettles of fish:

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Quote of the Month

Posted by PH on November 09, 2008
Digital Literacy, Quote of the Month / No Comments

The defining element of the desktop GUI is the icon, which, although it often has a name, is above all a picture that performs or receives an action. These actions give the icon its meaning. As elements in a true picture writing, icons do note merely remind the user of documents and programs, but function as documents and programs. Reorganizing files and activating programs is writing, just as putting alphabetic characters in a row is writing. Rather like the religious relics after which they are named, computer icons are energy units that focus the operative power of the machine into visible and manipulable symbols. Computer icons also remind us of the cultural functions of Hebrew letters in the Cabala or of alchemical and other signs invoked by such Renaissance magi as Giordano Bruno. Magic letters and signs were often objects of meditation, as they were in the logical diagrams of the medieval Raymond Llul, and they were also believed to have operational powers. As functioning representations in computer writing, electronic icons realize what magic signs in the past could only suggest.

Jay David Bolter

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Posted by PH on November 02, 2008
Music & Technology / 1 Comment

Released on October 10th, RjDj is one of the most interesting pieces of software that I’ve come across for some time. It’s difficult to describe what it is exactly, so you’d better watch the video (over 9 minutes but worth it, believe me):

I downloaded RjDj this afternoon and begrudgingly dragged my unloved and unused Apple headphone set out of the box—the software only works with this headset at the moment. It all worked perfectly first time, and within five minutes I was tapping, banging, clacking, and, yes, even singing along to “the soundtrack to my life.” Live and interactive: John Cage would have loved it.

Cooking the Sunday dinner became an experimental sound workshop: peeling potatoes, kicking open the flip-top bin, using a knife to create glissandi on the grill rack, whistling, thumping the worktop, running the tap, the clanking of saucepans, all became melded into some futuristic ambient-techno soundscape. Great fun!

At the moment, the number of scenes available is limited (5 only) but the website promises another 18 coming shortly. It could do with a way of exporting your recordings, and of course people posting comments on the RjDj site already want programmable delay times, use of better headsets, access to the individual audio channels, etc., etc.. Like a lot of iPhone applications, it borders on being a gimmick: something interesting and exciting for sure, but we’re not quite sure what to do with it…

BUT: what we’ve got here is an application that is sampling in real time, performing DSP on the input, playing that back and recording it at the same time. On a mobile phone. (In fact, RjDj makes the phrase ‘mobile phone’ suddenly seem redundant, out-of-date.)

Something important is happening here. It seems like one of those tipping-point moments, a paradigm shift. The gestural interface of the iPhone is exploited by RjDj in such a way that it allows not only a new way of making music, but a completely new way of experiencing music where our behaviour generates the events that become both the raw material and the gestures that shape our listening.

In fact, one could envisage a future where we no longer primarily bought music performed by other people. Instead we would buy new ‘scenes’ and build up a library of software that would transform the music we listen to and the sounds we experience according to mood, behaviour, whim, or conscious control. All ‘recorded music’ would become permanently fluid, open to improvisation and gestural control.

RjDj costs £1.59.

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