Frames from television program (1964) featuring a demo of Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad, edited in Photoshop to show the onscreen graphics more clearly.
Here at Rhizome, the big news of July 2013 was the launch of the open-access media conservation project XFR STN, a collaboration with the New Museum. We asked artists to Bring Us Your Obsolete Digital Media. Treasures are now beginning to emerge, and can be seen on the Internet Archive. The press is taking note.
In Editorial, the most-read article on Rhizome was Software Takes Command: An Interview with Lev Manovich, followed by the announcement of the commissioned artists for 2013-2014. The comment of the month goes to Curt Cloninger, who shared his detailed notes on the proper approach to Situationist Tubing. (If you plan to tube this summer, make sure to read this first.)
Prosthetic Knowledge assembled a much-Liked collection of works on dance and technology. Orit Gat explored the idea of The Book as Interface in her review of the new publication from or-bits.com, WYSIWYG. Michael Connor explored the emerging language of the website takeover in the most recent effort by Hannah Perry and Bubblebyte. Rafaël Rozendaal and Jürg Lehni appreciated the finer points of Vectors. Daniel Rourke profiled artist Nick Briz about the politics of the glitch, Karen Archey interviewed Biennial of the Americas curator Carson Chan about post-internet curating, and Zoë Salditch interviewed 4Chan founder and creator of DrawQuest Chris Poole. Eva Díaz discussed the geodesic dome as a networked structure from Drop City to Rockaway Beach.
With stories of data gathering in the news constantly this month, we featured Clark Stoeckley's graphic novel-in-progress about Bradley Manning and asked pointed questions about Miranda July's ongoing series of emails from the Sent Folders of notable people, We Think Alone. We also marked the fall of Apple's Patent on the Pinch-and-Zoom (summary: your gestures can still be patented as Alex Provan warned).
Finally, our series of Performance GIFs came to an end with #10: Paul Kindersley and #11: Jesse Darling. It's been fun seeing the contributions come in over the past few months, and we want to offer our thanks to Jesse and to all of the participating artists. We look forward to revisiting this series in the future.
Anti-Media. Ephemera on Speculative Arts, by researcher and theorist Florian Cramer.
Publisher NAI Booksellers writes: Literature written in the style of computer code, electro-acoustic compositions with newly created sounds, but also subcultures with clearly identifiable manifestations, from Internet porn to neo-Nazis and anti-copyright activists: high-, low- and subculture have long been impossible to distinguish, including in the degree of their self-reference. Art and media criticism focuses mainly on the concepts, not on the objects themselves. In Anti-Media Florian Cramer shows, through a close reading of cultural expressions and analysis of media and art criticism, how these constantly refer to their tradition, language and medium while trying to subvert them.
I've never reviewed nor even read anything that looked remotely like this book before. It is bold, thought-provoking, and extremely fast-paced.
Cramer makes fearless statements about interactivity, pop music, social hacking (that one was a fun chapter), 'openness' and many concepts and ideas that we brandish without much thoughts as if they were magical formulas. While reading his book, however, i realized once again that our writings, works and discussions rely on cultural terms which precise meaning, extent, impacts, and limits we often take for granted.
Anti-Media. Ephemera on Speculative Arts makes us sit down and ponder the transformation of archive by the hands of p2p services, the way modern aesthetics theories apply (or rather does no apply) to computing and interactive interfaces, the internet as a literary medium, the Creative Commons licenses and its lack of ethical code, political constitutions and philosophical manifesto and what that means for artists who are relying on it.
Nothing and no one (not even Rocco Siffredi) is safe from Cramer's sharp questioning and ruminating. You will either embrace his reflections or disagree with them entirely, but a heated debate with this kind of book would, i think, constitute a valuable exercise for the critical minds.
Image on the homepage: 01.org (Eva and Franco Mattes), Nikeground, one of the work discussed in the book.
The inToAsia Festival opens this week.
Without further ado, here are more selected events, exhibitions, and deadlines this week, all culled from Rhizome Announce.
Sunday, August 11:
The AND 2013 Fair in Liverpool, UK, inspired by the World's Fair of old, calls for submissions from artists, hackers, technologists, and makers all over the world. A £500 bursary will be offered to emerging practitioners to support their participation.
The Hungarian Multicultural Center seeks emerging artists to apply for their 2013 Artist Residencies in Budapest.
Culturia invites aritsts interested in researching the artistic process to apply for a six-week residency in Berlin, beginning in November 2013.
Friday, August 9: opening of Uncanny Visions 4, featuring a range of performance and video works which address the elusive medium of poetry. Performers include such luminaries as Bunny Rogers and Ann Hirsch. Organizers describe it as follows:
Uncanny Visions IV tackles that most persistent and elusive medium “poetry.” Specifically, we will feature a range of performance and video artists who function as self-styled "poets" in the most open mic sense of the word, but not.
Specific, but not. We are intrigued.
Thursday, August 8: inToAsia begins, a new festival focused on time-based works by new media artists based in Asia. (Pictured)
Saturday, August 10: NAISA launches (E)scapes, an exhibiton of two interactive sound pieces intended to explore the sonic relationship between body and space.
Saturday, August 10: EMPAC at RPI seeks applicants for the position of Graphic Designer.
Thursday, August 15: SAIC seeks a part-time faculty member in advanced 3D modeling for animation.
Saturday, August 24: The New Media program in the School of Film & Media Studies at Purchase College seeks candidates for a full-time, Assistant Professor beginning in the fall of 2014.
If you're as horrified as i have been by the endless queues to see the David Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, maybe you could walk by and try the ticket-free and crowd-free Making It Up: Photographic Fictions.
V&A has selected from its vast archives some 30 images that denies the assumption that photography captures 'the truth'. Since the early days of its history indeed, the medium has also been used to stimulate viewer's imagination or simply to deceive.
The exhibition is small but dense with narratives that entertain, betray, trouble or convey extra layers of information. Some of the stratagems used in these images are subtle, others are downright theatrical.
Roger Fenton, Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1854-5
Roger Fenton's Valley of the Shadow of Death photos are, i've been told, extremely famous. I must admit that i had never read about them before. Fenton was commissioned to document the Crimean War in 1855. Because of the limitations of photographic techniques of the time, because of the danger of entering the battlefield with a cumbersome photo equipment, but also because of the government's wish to present the war in a light that would not upset the public, Fenton couldn't represent the conflict directly.
Valley of the Shadow of Death is a striking example of how Fenton communicated the aftermath of a battle. The photo doesn't show corpses nor wounded soldiers but cannonballs strewn over a road near Sevastopol.
It was later discovered that Fenton had taken another photograph of this scene, with only rocks laying on the road this time. Historians speculate that Fenton probably staged the scene, moving cannonballs from the ditch onto the road in order to create an image dramatic enough to evoke human casualties on the battlefield.
Timothy Eugene O'Tower, View of Crimean War Battle Scene, 2006
Terry Towery (born 1963) aka Timothy Eugene O'Tower (1829-1905) claims to have 'discovered' this photo by his descendant Timothy Eugene O'Tower, a 19th century photographer. The photo immediately recalls Roger Fenton's. O'Tower is in fact a figment of Towery's imagination and his photos show table-top constructions masquerading as landscapes.
Jan Wenzel, Bastler V (Tinkerer V), 2000
Jan Wenzel, Bastler VI (Tinkerer VI), 2000
Jan Wenzel's compositions are made entirely inside a photobooth. He used to work in a booth located in the Census Office of Leipzig until, in 1998, he found an old Fotofix booth, repaired it and installed it in his studio. For each of his tableaux, he would set up the scene inside the photo booth and rearrange each frame at 28-second intervals.
The photos above are not the ones exhibited at the V&A but they are close enough to give you an idea of his work.
Oliver Boberg, Garteneingang, 2001
Nothing in Oliver Boberg's images is what it seems. He selects a location, takes a snap of it then goes back to his studio where he builds a model of the place, carefully lights it and then photographs the scene from predetermined vantage points.
He calls the result "generic modernism". His 'locations' are banal and familiar urban scenes, yet they are alien, stripped of any human or non human life. A reality so controlled and constructed, it becomes almost abstract.
Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Bathroom), 1999
Bridget Smith´s image depict sets purposely built for an activity that the photographer does not represent as such. The bathroom above (the work in the V&A exhibition was a locker room but i couldn't find any photo of it online) is an empty stage set used in the porn industry. The photo is part of the series "Glamour Studios" which catalogues architectures of desire.
Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (Temple Street), From the series Beneath the Roses, 2006
Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (The Father), from the series 'Beneath the Roses'. © Gregory Crewdson, 207
Gregory Crewdson works on a Hollywood movie scale with actors and a large crew but it is only after an elaborate process of digital editing that an effect of "hyper-visuality" arises in both the details and the ensemble of these Amercan suburb scenes. More than film stills, Crewdson's images are 'frozen moments', they allude to mysterious, disturbing events usually taking place at twilight. The puzzling scenes leave viewers wondering what has just taken place or what is going to happen.
Duane Michals, Chance Meeting, 1972
Duane Michals uses sequences of photos to suggest a narrative. In this sequence, two men pass in an alleyway without incident, but the encounter seems loaded with significance.
Clementina, Lady Hawarden, (Clementina and Isabella Grace Maude, 5 Princes Gardens) Studies from Life or Photographic Studies, about 1864
Lady Hawarden used her two eldest daughters as models who play out courtship scenes, dressed in 18th-century costume.
Robert Thomson Crawshay, A Slow market, 1868
Robert Thomson Crawshay was the owner of an ironworks and an amateur photographer. The sitter is not a fishwife but his own daughter whom he photographed in various guises.
More images from the show:
Jeff Wall, The Outburst. From the portfolio In a Dream You Saw a Way to Survive and You Were Full of Joy, 1989
Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction, image 23, 2005
Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction, image 23, 2005 (detail)
Hannah Starkey, Untitled - May 1997 (Couch), 1997
Cindy Sherman, Untitled 74, 1980
Making It Up: Photographic Fictions is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until March 16th 2014.
Related story: Manipulating Reality - How Images Redefine the World.
Material that has been brought to the XFR STN open-access media conservation project is now beginning to appear online at the Internet Archive, and there are some real treasures. One of these is Human Vectors by Dov Jacobson, included on a 3/4" videotape brought to the XFR STN by Phil Sanders. The tape included a compilation of works itled EVTV2, originally shown at Sanders' art-and-technology focused East Village RYO Gallery in the early 1980s. The piece caught our eye because of its apparent use of a vector-based computer animation system (for more on vector graphics, see this recently published interview). Jacobson gave us some background on the piece via email. — Ed.
Human Vectors was created principally using the Vectrex—an absolutely unique home game machine that had a built-in calligraphic display. Calligraphic ('vector') display is a cathode-ray tube (CRT) technology that predates the traditional TV or monitor. In standard TVs, the ray methodically paints the full surface of the tube like a man mowing the lawn. It gets brighter and darker as pixels are lit up or not. In a calligraphic display, the ray traces the image out. It is great for line drawings, and terrible for fills. It has cute artifacts at the corners as it changes direction... By 1984, the Vectrex was a market failure and I bought a few for $50 each.
Other shots used the beautiful monochrome character display of the first IBM PC...
and the final shot employed an experimental color graphics card (TrueVision) with a 640 x 400 resolution and 8 bit pixels. Hot stuff at the time.
The video was recorded on VHS by pointing cheap video cameras at the displays. My favorite cameras had laggy, smeary sensors. These were black-and-white security cameras bought from bins on Canal Street.
The music in the video was by Soma Holiday, art-punk musicians who lived in what was then the disregarded neighborhood of Williamsburg in the ignored borough of Brooklyn. How disregarded? How ignored? Soma Holiday (A great French guy and his fine american girlfriend) squatted in the marble lobby of an abandoned bank.
In the days before YouTube, the only backdoor path to pop media was (forget community-access television) MTV's Basement Tapes. Homemade music videos (now we'd say Indie) were selected by Viacom and voted on by the the audience (using "900 number" technology.)
Human Vectors was selected for Basement Tapes. We told all our friends to watch and call, but few had cable TV. We watched from an apartment in Brooklyn where somebody had cable. The other contestants were all standard rock music and 80's Music Videos (fog machines, cars, babes). We won 5th place. Out of 5.
The video did get heavy rotation at the Palladium (not yet an NYU dorm) and the cokey club that was a converted church—Limelight? But it was principally shown at Phil & Joanna's seminal RYO gallery in the then-quite-dangerous East Village.
The video was made during the pioneering days of 3D computer imaging, and it references typical C code as well as seminal researchers such as James Foley and Andreis Van Dam. At the time, I was living in Staten Island with wife and baby, and working in the Time-Life Building on a completely different computer display system, as a game developer. (About this time, Mike Smith and I made what the New York Times declared "the first videogame as fine art," Mike Builds a Shelter, which also showed at the New Museum).
Michael Smith and Dov Jacobson, Mike Builds a Shelter (1983). 2008 re-creation of game cabinet with restoration of original software.
Bill Ferster (partner) and I provided the 3D software (coded in the video) to pioneering animators and artists; in 1987, we sold our company to a big software company. With the new resources available (five programming teams and seven figure budgets) I launched a project to reproduce the brilliant Vectrex AnimAction system. The happy result, "Nimble," was sold in France and Japan but very bad business deals and Japanese/American rivalry killed it dead (except in France and in my studio in Washington DC). The Vectrex interface, which Nimble imitated, was more immediate and usable than standard computer animation paradigms.
Still image from Human Vectors showing Dov tech stack used in its making. Clockwise-ish from top: monochrome display 80 characters x 40 lines, IBM PC weighing 20 lbs with fully loaded memory (640K), aftermarket hard drive (another 30 lbs and $10,000, for 10 Megabytes), color display 640 x 400 pixels, 8 bit color, fat keyboard. No mouse yet. Not shown:Vectrex, Vectrex lightpen, AnimAction game cartridge, video gear.
Since making Human Vectors, Dov Jacobson has made a large number of games: art, commercial, experimental, propaganda and learning, as well as a couple of videos. Now, he lives in Atlanta and is currently Managing Director for GamesThatWork. He can be reached at Dov [at] BigFun dot net.
Between now and September 8, Rhizome and the New Museum are inviting artists to make free-of-charge appointments at the XFR STN exhibition to transfer their obsolete digital media and videotape to more stable formats. Here are five salient facts about this project and the conservation of born-digital materials:
1. Many digital media formats will become nearly impossible to access in the coming years, because the hardware used to access this media is no longer manufactured, and will not last forever. As a result, your digital files will be lost to you, and to posterity.
2. After transfering your digital files to more stable formats, you are under no obligation to share them with us; you will be given the option to transfer them to the Internet Archive, if desired.
3. We are accepting the following digital formats: 3.5” and 5.25" Floppy Disk, Zip Disk, JAZ Disk, Compact Disc, and IDE/PATA hard drives.
4. If you do not want to send your materials to the Internet Archive, you must bring your own storage media.
5. You can schedule an appointment here.
See you soon!
Anarchy Dance Theatre
A collection of items from the Prosthetic Knowledge Tumblr archive and around the web around the subject of dance and the creative employment of contemporary technology.
Anarchy Dance Theatre
Taiwanese dance group perform in specially designed interactive projected space created by UltraCombo to great effect - video below:
From the project description:
The collaboration project between Anarchy Dance Theatre and Ultra Combos focused on building up a new viewer centered performance venue. In this space all movements including the dancers’ and audience’s can be detected and interact with each other through visual effect. The audience is not merely watching the show but actively participating in it.
More about the group and their project can be found here
A monochromatic real-time reactive dance performance where computer visuals are as important to the movements themselves - video embedded below:
Trinity is a dance performance with high levels of real time interaction and close relationship between: dance, sound and visuals.
The interactive link is done through a videocamera installed above the stage and under infrared lighting. Besides positional tracking the project is focus in measuring movement qualities as: forces and directions, accelerations, stage position, velocity and body area.
The performance has been created and executed in live using the environment MAX/MSP/JITTER by Cycling74 and the computer vision library CV.JIT by Jean-Marc Pelletier.
More can be found at the Electric Performers website here
Dance and Projection Mapping from Daito Manabe
Stunning examples which demonstrate the incorporation of projection mapping onto the moving body - videos of projects one and two below:
More of Daito's work can be found at his website here http://www.daito.ws/
Prosthetic digital musical instruments create sounds based on movement and touch, designed for dance performances. Created at IDMIL, 15 minute video embedded below talks and demonstrates the project:
From the project description:
Researchers at the Input Devices and Music Interaction Lab at McGill University recently released a video documentary on the design and fabrication of “prosthetic digital instruments” for music and dance. These instruments are the culmination of a three-year long project in which the designers worked closely with dancers, musicians, composers and a choreographer. The goal of the project was to develop instruments that are visually striking, utilize advanced sensing technologies, and are rugged enough for extensive use in performance.
The complex, transparent shapes are lit from within, and include articulated spines, curved visors and ribcages. Unlike most computer music control interfaces, they function both as hand-held, manipulable controllers and as wearable, movement-tracking extensions to the body. Further, since the performers can smoothly attach and detach the objects, these new instruments deliberately blur the line between the performers’ bodies and the instrument being played.
Unlike most of the videos collected in this post, which document technology-based dance in its finished form, this video from Mehdi Tayoubi documents the behind-the-scenes process, showing how a dance piece that uses projection and real-time processing is put together.
A different type of dance and technology, project, Cadence by Baden Pailthorpe uses machinima and video processing.
The artist's description:
Cadence I - IV, (2013)
HD video, colour, stereo sound, 6 mins / 4 mins.
Edition of 5 + 2 AP.
The institution of the military is steeped in performative traditions, rituals and practices. Indeed the collective military body can be thought of as being characterised by a carefully calibrated choreography of movement.
Cadence (2013) is a series of four new-media artworks whose subject sits between war and performance. In these new video works, the figure of the Australian, US and Taliban soldier is placed within formal landscapes appropriated from pro-military cinema and military training simulators.
Rather than enacting standard military gestures or postures, the simulated soldier performs a slow and poetic dance. The usual politics of movement, discipline and posture of the military body are subverted, and instead rendered soft and expressive.
The seductive visual rhythm of cadence, camouflage and natural mimicry in these works gesture towards the dark mysticism of military history, where soldiers and psychedelics have often combined to disrupt landscapes and produce mystic escapes.
Baden Pailthorpe’s website can be found here.
After months of jury deliberation, we have a winner in the limited edition Guy Debord action figure giveaway that we offered on behalf of Verso Books to mark the launch of McKenzie Wark's new book on the Situationists and their legacy. Lisa Temple-Cox of Colchester, UK was the first to answer all twelve questions correctly; Stevphen Shukaitis and Morgan Faulkner were the runners-up. Lisa will win a limited-edition 3D-printed Guy Debord figurine made by Wark; Stevphen and Morgan will win complimentary copies of Wark's book The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages out of the Twentieth Century.
Anyone can 3D print their own #3Debord Action Figure. The .stl file, available here, is free and Creative Commons-licensed. Wark reports that of the handful of #3Debords that he personally fabricated, all have now been given away as gifts, mostly to people who knew Debord personally; now the last one goes to Lisa.
Lisa's correct answers are re-printed below.
1.The Critique of Everyday Life is a seminal book that opened up a whole line of critical thinking about the small, everyday situations outside of the factory walls and beyond the official political sphere. Who wrote it, and in what year was it first published?
Henri Lefebvre, 1947 for Volume 1 in French
2. McKenzie Wark calls the experience of the everyday in our time the disintegrating spectacle. He is adding a fourth kind of spectacle to the three described by Guy Debord. Writing in the 60s, Debord thought both sides of the cold war were just variants of spectacle. Later, he thought that states such as France and Italy had combined elements of both into a third kind. What were the names Debord gave to these three variants?
diffuse, concentrated, integrated spectacle
3. The Surrealist leader André Breton wrote a poem, published after World War II, dedicated to the famous utopian writer Charles Fourier. Breton’s poem starts out with the narrator noticing a flower placed beneath his statue. During the Occupation, the Germans melted it down to use the copper for munitions. On which Paris street was that statue?
Boulevard de Clichy
4. Debord’s comrade Raoul Vaneigem was rather more influenced by Surrealism, and via Surrealism by Charles Fourier, than some other Situationists. He even edited a paperback edition of Fourier’s ‘queer theory’ manuscript, The New Amorous World.What was the name of the Fourier-inspired utopia Vaneigem wrote about in 2005?
5. The great art historian T. J. Clark, who was briefly a member of the Situationist International, once recalled a demonstration in London which found him on the steps of the National Gallery in London. He and his friend debated there which painting within they would feel obliged to consign to the flames should the people ever storm through those illustrious portals. The masterpiece that Clark would have chosen was painted by whom?
Nicolas Poussin (Landscape with a Man killed by a Snake)
6. The Situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti pulled off a stunning prank in Italy, by publishing The Real Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy. Purporting to be from some insider to ruling circles or someone cognizant of ruling opinion, it argued that there was no harm in admitting Communists into government, as the Communists were not a revolutionary party, but were already acting in the interests of power in keeping workers in line. Under what name was the Real Report issued?
7. Next to Guy Debord, René Viénet is the best known Situationist film maker. His détourned films have a lightness and charm all of their own. His film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? uses a martial arts film as its raw material, and by gently moving a few minutes of film around and dubbing the actor’s voices into French, Viénet turns it into a critique of the Stalinization of the left during ’68. Who directed the film on which Can Dialectics Break Bricks? is based?
8. Debord’s ‘70s films Society of the Spectacle and Refutation of All Judgments were a quantum leap forward in complexity over his earlier cinema work, in part due to the resources of his new patron, Gerard Lebovici. Who was the film editor with whom Debord worked on these films, and who was the other famous French director with whom she worked?
9. Besides being Guy Debord’s second wife, Alice Becker-Ho wrote some very interesting books on the influence of Romani language on the ‘jargon’ of the dangerous classes, and as an important source for words not only in French but in other European languages. According to her glossary of jargon, what is the meaning of the word ‘baron’?
Trick question. She gives two slightly different versions:
From "The Princes of Jargon"
"accomplice playing the part of a well-to-do character in any swindle" (Simonin); rich pimp
baro: chief, big, important bra (caló): grande, superior, excelente;
barolacró: mayordomo, procurador baranda (Sp. sl.): jefe, director baròn
(gerg. Ven.): birbone, canaglia bari (furb.): compagnoni baron (Am. sl.):
accomplice, prisoner who has money, tycoon, big shot
From "The Essence of Jargon:"
"accomplice playing the part of a well-to-do character in any swindle" (Simonin), rich pimp bar, barn (Goth.): man, free man, man's children the
Frankish baro passed into the Latin world with the meaning of free man, warrior (see my note on baragouin on pages 64-5). We come across it again
in baron and the Spanish varon
10. Besides his many accomplishments in the arts of writing, editing, cinema, and revolution, Guy Debord was also a game designer. On the writings of which military theorist did he claim to have based The Game of War?
Carl von Clausewitz
11. Who was the member of the Situationist International who thought the SI should attempt détournements of porn and comics? Who praised Latin American militants for taking over an electronic BBS system? Who advocated fake issues of well-known periodicals? Who thought any militant thinker should be as capable of making a film as writing an article?
12. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale had the holograph manuscript of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle on display for a while. Did that manuscript and other items from Debord’s papers end up being sold by Alice Becker-Ho to the Beinecke, or somewhere else?
to the Bibliothèque national
Yesterday, Engadget and other outlets reported that the USPTO made its final decision to nix a patent filed by Apple in 2007 in an attempt to claim intellectual ownership of a number of touch-screen gestures, including the two-finger "pinch-to-zoom." Melissa Grey reported that "According to documents filed by Samsung in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California on Sunday, [the patent] was found wanting by the USPTO due to it being anticipated by other patents and declared otherwise non-patentable."
Patent number 7,844,915 has the unusual distinction of earning coverage in Artforum, in an article written by Alex Provan this past March. Provan drew a chilling picture of a world in which interaction with images took place according to a strictly programmed repertoire of movements:
Apple has filed patents for Pinch-to-Zoom, Slide-to-Unlock, Multifinger Twisting, Double-Tap-to-Zoom, and Over-Scroll Bounce, aka Rubber-Banding, among other functional finger gestures. The company is indisputably striving to corner the market on how we move our fingers across screens, how we scan and massage images. This was evident in August, when Apple won a major copyright-infringement lawsuit against Samsung and was awarded one billion dollars in damages, bringing us closer to the apocalypse Steve Jobs augured a few years ago in his Herman Kahn–inspired attack on Google’s Android OS: “I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”
Perhaps we're a step further from that apocalypse today (although it's worth noting that the denial of the pinch-to-zoom patent was first floated in December, well before Provan's article). Nevertheless, the US ruling does not challenge the underlying principle that gestural movements may be patented. Apple still has a number of patents in place relating to touch-screen gestures. Some of these can be seen in the following diagram published by the website Patently Apple as a summary of Apple's applications:
It's unclear when we'll be seeing these particular multi-touch gestures roll out. So far, they remind me of JODI's Untitled (mobile app), in which iPhone users must follow an absurd choreography of gestures dictated by their handheld device. When they complete a meaningless task correctly, they are rewarded with the ringing of an alarm. It looks like this:
Like JODI, Provan takes a dim view of the regulation of user behavior by technical devices, arguing that "Apple’s patented finger routines risk unsettling the delicate balance between managing the body and promising users unparalleled freedom and expressivity." In other words: are you programmed, or are you being programmed, by your devices?
In his article, Provan cites recently-departed computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart as an important precursor to today's gestural interface wars. He wrote, "Engelbart argued that computers should 'augment human intellect' and conceal their own complexity in order to help us solve 'the big problems'; here, finally, was a machine [the Apple Mac] that did just that." In fact, Engelbart was no great advocate of making computers overly user-friendly; saying that he intended to conceal the complexity of computers is a bit unfair. Moreover, he was "mildly appalled" by the Apple Mac. As Bret Victor points out in this article, the technologies pioneered by Engelbart have all been implemented in ways that did not reflect his intent, and in the wake of his passing, in the midst of patent imbroglios over human-computer interaction, it's well worth revisiting Engelbart's ideas, and the 1968 demo.
During that demo, Engelbart presented one innovation that never quite took off: a chorded keyboard. The keyboard was an input device which, with only five keys, replaced all of the functions of a QWERTY keyboard. It's essentially a multi-touch interface; users type particular characters by pressing certain combinations of keys, or chords. Essentially, it is asking the user to replace the one-key-at-a-time model with a multi-touch typing system. Interestingly, studies have shown chorded keyboards to be superior to QWERTY keyboards in a number of ways, but the complexity of using them kept people away. The 1983 article "The QWERTY Keyboard: A Review" described the situation as follows:
Rearranging the letters of the QWERTY layout has shown to be a fruitless pastime, but it has demonstrated two important points: first, the amount of hostile feeling that the standard keyboard has generated and second, the supremacy of this keyboard in retaining its universal position...The design and the layout of the QWERTY keyboard are not optimal for efficent operation...
I can't help but think about this when reading Apple's rationale for the Star and the Crossbar and all that:
But existing methods for real-time user interface input gesture alterations and modifications are cumbersome and inefficient. For example, using a non-contiguous sequence of gesture inputs, with at least one gesture to serve as a behavior modifier, is tedious and creates a significant cognitive burden on a user. In addition, existing methods take longer than necessary, thereby wasting energy.
The complicated gestures outlined in Apple's multi-touch patent perhaps share something in common with Engelbart's chorded keyboard; they may have a difficult time convincing users to adopt any gesture more complicated than the three-fingered swipe. Perhaps the gestural patents that are the most troubling are not those that attempt to manage users, asking them to learn complex behaviors in order to use their devices more efficently; the most troubling are those that attempt to stake a claim over our existing repertoire of movements.