Page last updated November 18, 2006













LiveLighting: using a tablet & projector for live performance lighting
I sometimes give my students the predictably professorial advice not to sell out; to stay focused on what intrigues them or brings them the most satisfaction—but at least I say if they must sell out, sell out to a field that has money! Likewise, if you're gonna do stage lighting for free, do it for an all-girl band... ;) A friend's alternative/psychedelic band was kind enough to let me light them when I realized my projector was plenty bright enough to stand in for an entire lighting kit. Now I just need another projector so I get more than one angle. Take a look at two days' tinkering efforts: LiveLighting.

CodeProfiles at the Whitney Museum of American Art
Curator Christiane Paul asked a dozen “computer artists” to move and connect three points in space. Three points wasn’t enough information for a dataphile like me, and I couldn’t just invent a space; that would be too arbitrary. But when I took her curatorial agenda to heart (“The emphasis is placed on process and data while the results are made visible only after...”), I created a space by drawing the code itself, then traced three processes through that space: how I wrote the code (the insertion point), how someone might read the code (the fixation point), and how the computer runs the code (the execution point). It’s still up at the Whitney’s ARTPORT; look for CODeDOC. I wrote up some short notes about it myself, when it (and the prints I created soon after) were shown at the Arizona ISA, then InfoVis 2003.

TextArc, an alternate view of a text
Suppose your boss hands you a 500-page book with no index, no table of contents—no metadata at all—and says you need to know the key ideas expressed in the book, where they’re concentrated (but don’t miss any important single mentions!) and, if there are main characters, who are they and when they enter and exit. Then he says the meeting starts in five minutes. TextArc, a visual concordance/index, might give you just enough to wing it...

Mind'Space at the Museum of Modern Art
Paola Antonelli’s 2001 workspheres exhibition at MoMA explored how design and technology change the workplace. We were commissioned to show information visualization ideas, and were introduced to the Haworth Furniture Company’s Ideation group, led by Jeff Reuchel. The resulting collaboration projected our “blobs” of information on a lovely nautilus-shell desk inspired by the workings of attention and memory. For our part, we tried to show how different visual vocabularies can distinguish different types of data, and how easy and fun ad-hoc heterogenous data association creation can be. (Just bump the nodes together!)

Goldman Sachs’ New York Stock Exchange Wireless Handheld
Now a classic (deployed in late 1999 and still leading today), this design created “information objects” that gave physical form to the objects in brokers’ heads: orders and executions. Executions were manipulated one at a time, so we could respect the decades of incremental improvements that went into the existing paper pads by just copying them. But institutional brokers have to deal with many orders at a time—more than will fit on one screen. Our evocative arrow shapes make sells impossible to mistake for buys, and they visually articulate the data to match the way brokers think about them. “You don’t need to learn it. You grab it with your eyes.” quotes one of the brokers. Download and read the June 2000 ID Magazine feature article.


1973; Computer graphics: stochastically shaded spheres & circles
At Andover High School in Michigan I took an experimental computer class; one of the earliest to give high-schoolers access. I programmed in BASIC on a remote IBM 360, using a typewriter-like printed teletype terminal. Though it only had 80 columns of capital letters, the first thing I did was make pictures. A block of characters was printed on the page, with denser characters used for darker areas. The density was calculated by deciding how far the caracter’s location was from one of several randomly generated centers. The yellow punched-tape program was about an inch and a half big when rolled up. Here’s a Java recreation approximating my first computer graphics.

1973; Interactive game design: find the boy or spaceship
At about the same time I wrote a simple two-dimensional computer game, with a text interface. You were told that a small boy was lost in the forest (40 miles square), but he had a radio transmitter with him. You had a gizmo that would tell you how far you were from the boy, so as you typed in coordinates the computer would give back distances. You would solve it by drawing circles on scratch paper, and finding their intersections. I wrote it again as a spaceship lost in a cube; somewhat more fun ’cuz it’s harder to hand draw interpenetrating spheres, though I got good at that, too. My proto-computer-geek friends enjoyed the challenge with me.

Eventually, though, my teacher told me to get down to working on what computers were really meant for: writing mortgage amortization tables.

1976; Stochastic fiction engine: Implementing Gahan Wilson’s plot generators
At UC Irvine I got access to computers again. Like thousands of other adolescent boys at the time, I was a devotee of National Lampoon, where I saw some “automatic horror story generating” flow-charts that Gahan Wilson drew. He illustrated branches and loops, and I developed a data-driven Basic program to make them actually work. Some of the resulting plot outlines were hilarious, thanks to Mr. Wilson’s dry wit. I was told by the system administrator that they were one of the more popular diversions on the system.

1982; Behavioral animation: Worms
When I got my first computer, an Apple ][, I immediately launched into making moving images. One of the first things I did was a simple hack at a gravitational model, where a point would circle a “star” or gravity well. I drew the current position as well as several past positions to allow you to easily see the trajectory. Mike Wilk, a close friend at college said he wanted to see the thing “chase its tail” so we stuck the gravity well to one of the past positions. Unexpectedly fascinating loops, scrolls, and figures rewarded our hacking. Here’s a Java recreation of Worms.

Seeing that such simple rules generated such engaging images and behavior directed me to hours of tweaking the parameters, and musing on what exactly made these things attract and hold my attention. It got even spookier and more interesting when I created several of the little things, and had them chase one another in sequence. I noticed that something in me was watching them as if they were alive, imputing intention to them. When I finally added sound (the Apple could generate a square wave at audible frequencies) and keyed the sound to their velocity I was completely hooked. Against my better knowledge—I had created the silly things from trivial arithmetic, after all—I empathized with their emotions! They were clearly sometimes happy and sometimes sad.

1983; Animation exhibition
Jane Aaron, a experimental animator using traditional media, asked me to exhibit something at a show she put together at an artsy night club in Manhattan, I think it was called Amazon. I rewrote Worms in the language Forth (which I learned for the job) on an Atari 800, and asked that it be installed behind one of the bars. A monitor was hung over the upstairs bar, and it ran the never-repeating real-time animation for about three weeks straight. It was low-key and hypnotic, adding just the quiet wierdness I wanted to the scene.

1984; Professional computer animation: Better Homes and Gardens commercial
The first time I got paid for this stuff never made it on air—it was an opening teaser for ABC news, done with Shadow Light Graphics, a New York animation house. But the second time made it to national TV. It was a six-second opening teaser for Better Homes and Gardens Home Improvement Books. At a time when computer animation was just breaking into the public consiousness; and everything was flat, square, flying grids; we designed a full three-dimensional model of a house, and a B-splined 3D camera move.

We paid homage to the grid by starting with a blue background overlaid with a black grid. White lines drew on one by one until you could recognize a “blueprint” of a house floor plan; still flat. But then the camera started moving and you saw the house continue to draw on in space as the camera swooped in on the window in the front door, where the ad proper ran. Thanks for the matricies, first edition Foley & Van Dam.

1984; Computer Animation: Clio Awards opening credits animation
I was the computer department for the short-lived Graphic Motion Group, a New York animation house that did a few commercials with lots of optical effects and animation. We did the opening animation and credits for the Clio Awards, and I bought my first tuxedo to attend the ceremony at Radio City Music Hall. Bright lights and fancy clothes; pretty impressive to a kid from Michigan.

1984; First company incorporated: Digital Image Design Incorporated
So I started a company devoted to fusing my interests in Art, Perceptual/Cognitive Psychology, and computers.

1986; 3D editor development: Harold
DID started doing animation to develop those interests. But I found the hand-entry of points and hand-coding of camera moves incredibly tedious in this pre-Alias world. So I bought Digital Effects’ SGI Iris 1400 (serial number 49!) at auction and started to build a full 3D editing package, conceptually patterned after the extensible text editor Emacs. It was a much more ambitious project than I could have known, and I was soon eclipsed by modelers from Alias, Abel, and Wavefront. But Harold (named after the world-drawing hero of the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon) still had features (like gesture-recognizing commands, arbitrarily-angled multiple viewports, the ability to draw in any window—including perspective views, and object-oriented reconfigurable menus) that the big guys didn’t have for a decade. One of my first lessons in business: it’s not ideas or engineering alone that make a product.

But I had at least found my career. It turned out that designing how computers interact with people exercised exactly the disciplines I wanted to apply. In the grandiose phrases I used to describe this stuff when I was in my twenties: I was “Building with Thought and Logic,” because computer programs work only when the intellectual structures and processes are clear and correct. And it was “Applied Metaphysics and Epistimology,” because people could use these programs easily only when I was able to define the program’s entities and behaviors in a human way; tailoring the way they looked so that people could easily understand what they were, what they did, and how to make ’em do it. Fun and deep stuff.

1987; Financial interface design: Chase Manhattan Bank
My “day job” was building financial computer systems. And though there still wasn’t a field called or “interaction designer,” my boss and colleagues knew that I liked to lay out screens—something many of my colleagues considered boring. But I really enjoyed trying to figure out how colors and positioning of these text fields on the first IBM PCs might affect how people liked using them. So they sent that kind of work my way. I still remember when my boss told me to hide the mouse I was experimenting with (to see if it might help people enter data in arbitrary sequences). His boss had told him to “get that toy off [Brad’s] desk; this is a place of business.” Far-sighted fellow.

1989; Financial data visualization: Lehman Brothers
I ran a four-person group in the Lehman advanced technology group

1989; First product: inScape, a Desktop Virtual Reality
All the math and ideas that went into VR CAVEs, a year or two earlier

1991; First hardware product: the Cricket
A 3D Mouse

1994; First successful hardware product: the Monkey
A 3D “doll” used to position human figures in animation programs

2001; First appearance at a major art institution: Mind'Space at MoMA
And that pretty much brings us up to where the bigger descriptions start

Recent (2013) quick references: