Robert Hodgin

This evening’s first presentation at Eyeo was by Robert Hodgin, who is a terrific speaker and explainer, and funny to boot.  Robert says:

I remember using a computer with a four-color palate, a low-res display.  I was playing video games and I don’t recall a single instance where I thought that dragon was too low-res.  One day I discovered it had an alternate color palate.  Then I asked – Why would anybody need more than 256 colors?  That was a different time for me.  I knew about two lines of basic.  I could make the second line go back to the first line.  Now my laptop has 16.7 million colors.

We all know that a monkey given a word processor would eventually pound out randomly the work of Shakespeare.  Some students actually tried this.  They mostly typed the same letter over and over again.  A computer simulation of this experiment actually came up with 24 letters worth after a year and a half.

Computers are too slow right now to do the kind of simulations we really want to do.  When computers become a lot faster it will help a lot of people that are doing larger computations.

This is a particle emitter.  It should be a point in space, if you prefer to think of it as an object that’s fine.  (He drags the particle emitter with a mouse and it speeds around.  He adds the force of gravity and the particles sink to the bottom.  He lets them wander around randomly.)

I became interested in using audio to control how these particles move about.  (He shows some interesting demos of music visualizers that look like islands in seawater, or lava-filled landscapes, or galaxies filled with stars.)  The audio is telling each particle that it should grow as the frequency increases, and decrease and the frequency goes down.  That last code base in a collaboration with Andrew Bell became the iTunes default music visualizer.

Robert began inserting graphics into video, and he hand-drew a depth map that allowed him to put objects into the scene from his dining room table, and know whether objects he placed in there should be behind the table leg or whatever.  He would have liked to point a camera at an outdoor scene and put some creatures into it.  He did a cityscape.  He videoed a pigeon nesting in his windowbox and put an animated hat on it.

He says: When the Kinect came along I used the Kinect depth information to determine where the particles should go. (He shows a video showing himself as a “fat blobby monster“. He shows a video of himself working at the laptop, fingers flying.) And someone jokingly suggested on YouTube that he should make an Aphex Twin video, and then Aphex Twin actually invited him to make a screens how for their New Year’s Eve show in Rome.

Ultimately he got tired of telling the particles where to go and how to behave.  He wanted them to play off each other. (He shows some videos of a physics teacher showing some experiments in what looks like zero gravity environment).

In 2008 Robert put some animated particles in zero g space (virtually) and tells them they have to attract other particles the same.  If each one has to talk to the other 13 it spirals out of control quickly.  Then he gave the particles a charge.  You get some nice behaviors with that extra rule.  If you lower the temperature the particles slow down.

He says: I continued exploring these magnetic interactions.  It was nice to not have to tell them what to do.  When they’re forced to interact with each other you can come up with some impressive, unexpected, and organic results.

I’m going to talk a bit about flocking which has become a new project for me.  I did a project with Barbarian Group, the company I started.  I used Perlin noise; the birds clump up quite a bit, the bird has no awareness of its neighbors.  I wasn’t satisfied coming from a simulation point of view.  So I started to explore some flocking rules.  Rule 1 is separation, you can’t get too close.  It ended up being a nice stippling algorithm by accident.

I was approached by an Institute of the sciences in Germany to help visualize a molecule. I sent them this (he shows a visualization that looks like a red and black scary spider).  They never even wrote back.

Rule two is cohesion.

Rule three is alignment – it changed everything and such a simple change.   If the particle starts to get too close it will self-organize by following the nearby particle.  You often see a toroid with these flocking simulations because they are common in nature.  I did this in Cinder.  It was a pretty quick change to get it to work for flocking fish as well.  (He shows comparisons to what you see in nature).  “I have a long way to go before I can come up with something this compelling”.

For Addition/Subtraction 2010 he started moving thousands (?) of particles around with the magnetic properties.  Makes a nice visual.

Robert says: I submitted to the Written Images project.  Generative artists sent in an application that print out four images and then quit.  It can be automated and every book is a unique artwork.  I worked on simulating a coronal mass ejection using Processing.

When you get up to a million particles you’re getting into 59 billion force calculations per second, you lose real time very quickly on your little laptop.  So it took Matthew Bate 260+ days to render with a field of 35 million particles.  He had access to  many computers linked together.  We’re far away from the point where I’ll be able to do a high res simulation to see what a galaxy might look like with a change that we could discern.

The work that I do is intended to fill myself and others with a sense of wonder.  I think of stars differently now.

A couple of months back we made Planetary, an alternate way of visualizing someone’s music library on the iPad.  We wanted to give a sense of exploration and play.  My fascination with all things astronomy-related led to this.  When we look at an artist’s star we see its planets, orbiting around the star of the artist, as the albums released by the artist.  And the moons of the planets are the songs on the album. (He picks Massive Attack, cLOUDDEAD.  The orbit speed of the moons is based on the track lengths.  The size of the moons is based on how often you play a track.  A favorite band of mine, the Knife, put out an opera based on the work of Charles Darwin.  We have a scale slider so you can change the scale of the simulation if you’d like.  After 20 seconds it turns to screensaver mode.

But wait! I have gifts!  (He asks people to tweet the names of the video games he showed in the beginning to his handle to receive free prints.  One was Wizardry, I do not know the other).