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Artists And Engineers Create The Future Of Art And Technology

We spoke with Doug Carmean of Intel Labs about his latest installation at our Creators Project: San Francisco event and the vast potential of collaborations between artists and engineers.

by Julia Kaganskiy
Apr 2 2012, 3:45pm

Intel engineers teamed up with Social Print Studio to create this interactive, real-time Instagram installation called #Creators Live, which debuted at our Creators Project: San Francisco event at Fort Mason. Photo by Jason Henry.

As we keep seeing time and time again, some of the greatest innovations happen when ideas and ideologies collide, and that’s a big part of what makes the intersection of art and technology so exciting to us. Many of our Creators are technologists in their own right, building new tools or appropriating existing tools for creative expression. But some of the greatest unsung creative masterminds of our time are the researchers working in the world’s tech labs, dreaming up visions of the future, designing the way we’ll interact with information, people, computers and the world around us. What happens when you bring these types of visionaries together?

Doug Carmean is one of those visionary researchers. As an Intel Fellow and Director of the Efficient Computing Lab at Intel Labs, Carmean is responsible for creating countless innovations in the field of processor architecture and implementation, memory subsystems and low power design (he holds more than 25 patents to date and has many more pending). But for the first time in his life, Carmean got to wear an “Artist” badge at our Creators Project: San Francisco event at Fort Mason and utilize his artistic muscle in the creation of an interactive video installation commissioned for the event, called #Creators Live.

Developed in collaboration with the California-based design group Social Print Studio, Carmean and his team worked on constructing a piece that aggregates real-time Instagram photos from the event and allows visitors to interact with them in two gesture-based ways—on the one hand, they turned a plain wall into a touch-sensitive surface, on the other, they used a Kinect to track visitors’ movements in the space and shuffled the projected photos based on their gestures.

#Creators Live on display at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Photo by Bryan Derballa.

The result is a beautiful, intuitive, highly social installation that artfully integrates research Intel Labs has been doing on visual computing experiences and the continuous flow of geo-located social photos. The collaboration was an inspiring exercise for both Carmean and his team and the Social Print team—opening up both parties to new ways of thinking about their own work and new ideas that will no doubt drive future projects.

This collaboration between Intel Labs researchers and artists is just one of many projects we hope to facilitate over the course of this year. We caught up with Carmean to learn more about the collaborative process and why he feels this type of exchange between artists and engineers is important to the future of culture and technology.

The Creators Project: Can you tell me more about the collaboration that took place with you and Social Print Studio for the #Creators Live installation at Fort Mason? How did that project come together?
Doug Carmean:
My side started with the Creators [event] in October, when I was in DUMBO, [Brooklyn] running around in that. From talking to SuperUber's Russ Rive, I really wanted to try doing something for Creators, participate more than just observe. We had a bunch of brainstorming sessions with SuberUber and they instilled us with some ideas that were along the lines of our research direction. What we were really interested in researching was if any surface could be a display. How do you bring information to it? And what are the right ways that different devices should interact with that display?

After the brainstorming sessions with SuberUber, Russ got very busy. He had a baby, and got the commission for the Mobile World Conference piece. We kept working on it by ourselves. We had developed it into an organic looking display that had a Twitter surface. We showed it early on, in early February, to Ciel and Dave [Vice and Intel Creative Directors, respectively]. We told them we had a piece we were interested in doing and asked what they thought of it. They said it was interesting but we'd need more work on the aesthetics. They said it in a more polite way than that, but that's what I heard. They paired us up with Social Print, who had done Instagram scraping at DUMBO.

Social Print Studio’s Instagram installation at Creators Project: New York in DUMBO. Photo by Sylvia Kim.

I think this is really the genius of hooking us up, because I think Social Print had done a really nice job of the presentation of the Instagram photos. We had a lot of technology in an overwhelming, sort of confusing way. Dave and Ciel hooking us up with Social Print really was this perfect marriage of art and technology, where the Social Print guys really helped us simplify and add an artistic elegance to the interface of the wheel we were working on. They really helped simplify and distill it down to something that was usable.

Once Dave and Ciel made the initial introductions, I personally started working with Ben Lotan from Social Print. We basically started a series of daily phone conversations and near-continuous email exchanges. Then Ben came to Portland for four days. By then, we had the concept pretty nailed down to what we wanted to do. Over the course of four days we beat it into a prototype where we iterated really quickly with my team and with Ben providing the artistic guidance. At the end of the four days, we had something that was not quite functional, but a good demonstration mock-up prototype of what we intended to do. At that point, we just launched into building it and were then able to iterate via email. We exchanged a lot of video over the internet, and the two pieces came together. That's kind of it in a nutshell.

What was this process of collaboration like? What was the exchange?
I think this turned out to be almost one of those perfect marriages. Ben has a Masters in Fine Arts, and has a nice perspective for aesthetic and art quality. He’s not as encumbered by technical details or the encumbrance of the way engineers typically approach development problems. Likewise, my team had the formal training in hardware and software development. We come from doing everything from building processors that are shipped to hundreds of millions of units to developing video games. We've got this really formal background of doing product development, but not so much in artistic installations. That marriage was really good. We both saw the complementary strengths we had and how we could bring those together. It was like a super complementary, highly-motivated collaboration, with Social Print providing really good inspiration for the art side and my team with this really strong technical foundation, wanting to collaborate and make it something useful.

I really loved hearing you talk about the way that interacting at Creators Project events changed the way you think about your own work. In particular, I know there was a story from the New York event, interacting with the Brazilian duo Cantoni & Crescenti that really put an idea in your head about the computer as a forest. Could you tell me a little about that interaction and how it influenced you moving forward?
The Brazilian duo Cantoni & Crescenti are really interesting because they have a very philosophical approach to art and technology. In DUMBO, I was very impressed by the installation they did there that was this, by all descriptions very low-tech, but meaningful installation that demonstrated social interaction. You had a physical feedback from people walking on that installation.

Cantoni & Crescenti's gigantic undulating floor piece Soil. Photo by Bryan Derballa.

In the discussion that I had with them, they were particularly intrigued by why I was there and why I had so much interest in their installation. I said, "I really want to take a fresh look at the way computers are built, the way interfaces are done, and how humans and computers actually interact."

For a long time, I think the technologists have had this approach that we understand the technology and we will get people to adapt to our technology. We will train them to use it. [Cantoni & Crescenti] said to me that I should take a step back and think about the interactions I have when I go into a forest. When I go into a forest, there's something there that is very natural. No one has to explain to you what to do in a forest, and it's because you're made up of the same rules the forest is made from. It's all very organic and natural. That really made me step back and give me pause. First of all, there's something very true about it. It hits to the core of what we are and how we interact with things. It was a fresh approach to thinking about how people, objects and technology all interact. We tend to make them overly complicated and there's something very primal and easily understood about the way you interact in a forest.

That concept stuck with me since that discussion in October. Every time we're looking at a computer interface, a menu, or an interaction, I stop and think about that story. Is this something we will have to teach people how to use? Or is it something people understand because it's the way that they're built? It's really interesting because that interaction from DUMBO happened more than six months ago, but it's something that is still in the forefront of my mind as we're working on new computer interfaces and new computer design. It really is a way an abstract notion from an artist has influenced the way that technology will be developed in the future.

Having just returned from your second Creators Project event in San Francisco, do you have examples of other interactions like that? Anything else that has stuck with you or changed your approach?
There was a similar story that happened when I met Russ from SuperUber. The installation they did in New York was SuperPong. It is this really fun mix of Pong and FoosBall. The presentation of it is another one of these super elegantly simple presentations. It's just basically a flat table with six nobs on it. What's fun about SuperPong is there aren't any instructions or words that show up anywhere on the table or the game. When you talk to Russ about the way they thought about putting the interface together, it needed to be something that people would understand, and instructions would get in the way of learning how to use it or interact. What they wanted to do was have something super fun.

Super Pong by SuperUber. Photo by James Medcraft.

I sat around for hours just watching people play. It was really interesting watching these lines of crowds form around the table. People who didn't know each other were both on the same team and played against each other. There were these instant connections made around the table. First of all, anyone could just walk up and start playing it, and you'd see these very, very animated people high-fiving, yelling across the table.

There was this theme that we talked about—any sort of interface or interaction, or any sort of device that we're making, people understand intuitively. Here's this pretty complex game that people understand because they've seen variations of it before. The interface wasn't cluttered with words and buttons; you just start playing. Every time we do an interface, I have a tendency from my technical background to want to put all these buttons and menus and drop downs and words and instructions. I think the way Russ approaches things with SuperUber is based on the notion that you should be able to do this without any instructions or words. If you look at what we attempted to do with #Creators Live, the only thing we put on the display was just the #Creators, and the words Instagram and Twitter, and from that, it was amazing. We had over 2,000 people pick up on what that was all about. That was another very specific inspiration that I took away from what happened in DUMBO.

Do you think this sort of exchange between artists and engineers is important? What is the greatest thing we could hope for to come out of that?
I think it's super important because it's rethinking the way technology gets integrated into our lives and culture in general. There is a tendency of computer architects and engineers to think about computers and devices as supercomputers that are organized in very specific ways. The integration of the artist into the mix makes it so that they fit well culturally, they have an aesthetic that's pleasing, and they have an entertainment value. I think that is socially rewarding, because using a computer is an experience people enjoy. My mother and my wife enjoy using computers that we build. From a business point of view, it makes sense because now we're opening up these areas where technology previously wasn't relevant (the arts, for example). We can have an impact culturally, and pull that back to something that is good for the business as well. It's incredibly important because it has a high social benefit as well as a tremendous business opportunity. It's exciting for those prospects.

Carmean and his Intel Labs team are continuing to collaborate with Social Print Studio on the next iteration of #Creators Live. At our San Francisco event, they gathered tons of user feedback and observed interactions closely. Now they’ll be integrating all of that user experience data into improving the design and making it even more intuitive and playful. Look for the installation at a Creators Project event near you this year.


doug carmean
interactive installation
social print studios