Interactive Medias, Interview with Russ Haines of Eye Vapor and Touch Designer

So much is going on in the way of real time interactive software and animations that I find just trying to get a good understanding of all the possibilities inherent in the many programs on the market is daunting. As a freelance 3d artist/visual poet working with different companies, understanding the technology is important to me artistically as well as for employment. I am also a resident artist at Vortex Immersion - a company that among other things stages real time interactive and and immersive events in conjuncture with different artists and companies. For me the key is to stay calm and find the tools that work to create what I need. One very interesting tool I recently rediscovered is Touch Designer. Touch Designer put out by Derivative is a visual development platform that can be used to create real time and interactive media systems, as well as live music visuals.  When I first came across the software program Touch Designer in about 2002 or 2003, it was being primarily used to VJ. About 6 months ago I again came upon Touch in a demo being given at the Vortex Immersion Dome downtown in Los Angeles by Russ Haines of Eye Vapor.   Among other things the company Eye Vapor creates live interactive performances. In that particular demo Russ was interactively flying a spaceship around the Vortex Immersion dome. Eye Vapor has done some very impressive work. At a corporate show in Boston this past year they had set up real time graphics that viewers could interactively control using iPads.  For other events such as a musical event hosted by Yoko Ono at the Hollywood Bowl or the EMA event at the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles they had dancers interacting with the on screen graphics, and sound being interactively controlled by visuals. At a Halloween event for Manguin No1 Absinthe they created live 3d stereo graphics.


Interview with Russ Haines of Eye Vapor

Russ Haines is at the forefront of interactive technologies and is also one of the principals at Eye Vapor. Besides being extremely talented and personable, Russ Haines is very generous about sharing his knowledge.

1. Russ, please tell me a bit about your background. What are your involvements with the 2 companies, Touch and Eye Vapor?

Jeff Smith and I started Eye Vapor a few years back when Derivative's Touch Designer got cool enough to use without going mad. Derivative liked some of my work and hired me to make a series of video tutorials.

2. How did you first become involved with Touch Designer, and how did that lead to the opening up of your company, Eye Vapor(if it did)?

Jeff told me about Touch a decade ago. I tried it out, but graphics cards weren't fast enough to pull off a lot of the cool tricks, and the learning curve to get started was steeper than my interest in banging my head against it.

That changed with the current version of Touch Designer FTE 077, when Jeff showed me some of the cool things he was doing with it. With a bit of my standing over his shoulder to learn things, and a lot of phone calls, I got far enough up the learning curve to get a pretty good view of what's possible.

3.  What do you feel are the main strengths of and uses for Touch Designer?

The main strength is that Touch is a visual programming language. It's not really an app, in that it does nothing out of the box. It is also highly optimized to process live data in real time. Often that live data is used to make and manipulate pretty pictures, but it doesn't have to be. One time, in about fifteen minutes using snippets of Touch files on the user forum, I built an automatic cat door that only opens when it sees the right cat. Another time I projection mapped my office so that it had cool ultraviolet ground effects that throbbed to the music. Then there's the time I created "Guitar Anti-Hero" so you can play a real guitar and the notes go backwards INTO the game to win. I so totally don't have the patience or attention span to ever do things like this using traditional coding or apps.

4.  What programming language is Touch built on? What are the principles, and logic behind it? Is the architecture easily accessible to a programmer, a non programmer?

Near as I can tell, Touch Designer is written in Touch Designer; in that every part of it is deconstructible further into Touch elements. Basically, it's "turtles all the way down." When things get really nasty, you can add C++ and OpenGL to it.

Historically, Touch Designer is the real time offspring of  Houdini.  Houdini is a procedural graphics program popular in the feature film industry. Greg Hermanovic, the creator of Houdini and Touch Designer, originally started with PRISMS by Side Effects Software in 1987, which I'm told was the progenitor of the entire concept of graphical programming where you see a node box and connect it with wires to other nodes.

I'm very much a non-programmer. And I've always been frustrated that I just don't care enough about learning to code to successfully create my ideas. Touch allows me to pull off stuff I really have no right to be able to do. Luckily, so far not enough people know enough about Touch to put me out of work.

5.  I believe you said that Eye Vapor builds on Touch Designer. What have you augmented Touch to do that it does not do out of the box?

Touch does almost nothing out of the box. You can see in my beginners' tutorial videos that in less than five minutes you can create a realtime complexly warped NURBS smiley face. In the next five minute tutorial, I make the smiley animate and move in real time via an iPod. Five minutes more and I create an infinite 3D space filled with realtime smiley face spheres reacting in real time. The power to do whatever your little heart desires, without having to code it line by line? That's pretty cool.  And then there's the things that Eye Vapor gets paid to do. Same basic principle: brainstorm something amazing and whacky, figure it out later.

How have you done that?
That's a secret!
6. What are some of your plans for eye Vapor in the future from an artistic, technical and business perspective?

We're awfully pleased to be working with the Jabbawockeez since they started their Las Vegas career. We're proud to be working with Vortex Immersion to create a 2500 square foot, real time, immersive media dome for this year's Superbowl. Every client we work with wants us to stretch the boundaries of what's possible, and that's pretty fun. We've got some cool art/technology that we're saving for the right project(s). And we're always brainstorming.

7. I notice that Touch is node based and the interface has a lot in common with interfaces for various node based compositors. Touch seems too do real time compositing very swiftly, what about other real time functions, modeling, animating a character, particle effectsand dynamics.. There is such an array of VJ programs on the market currently, how is Touch different or the same as the other programs?

Touch is entirely about real time. And I'm told Derivative's Greg Hermanovic is the guy who originated node based programming.  Touch imports complex geometry and rigged models for full motion output in real time. Character animation and key framing are pretty well developed in Touch, but it gets really fun when you perform the character in real time.

Touch Designer is not a VJ program. It *can* be used to create awesome visual art that works well with music, but it can just as easily to do projection mapping, or digital puppetry, or FNMRI modeling of the brain in real time. The full name of Touch is "Touch Designer Free Thinking Environment". That "FTE" bit is a good clue.

8. To effectively run Touch, how much power is needed?

120 volts is sufficient*. GPU-wise you'll always be wanting the fastest, best test card so you can do that one thing more in a scene. But pretty much all current laptops and computers with nVidia chipsets should be fine. And Touch is free, so it costs you nothing to find out.[*"volts" is funnier than "watts"]

9.  Any thoughts on the future of immersive and interactive media?
This year immersive and real time interactive media is still novel enough that it's a big deal at a concert or corporate event. The audience is still surprised when an animated character maintains eye contact and talks with you. Or when an entire building sways, dances and moves to the music. It won't take long for people to expect reality to be augmented, and I can't wait to make up whatever's next.


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