Hack n Chat dundee 2013 #mozparty

Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) is a major cultural hub in the Dundee city centre, which makes it the perfect place for artists, biologists and computer scientist to congregate, share their experiences and make things together. So that’s just what we did at our Mozilla #makerparty on 30th July 2013.

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We started off with a talk from Processing guru @IraGreenberg, who described his relationship and journey with programming. With a background in traditional Fine Art, his approach to computation was exploratory and motivated by desire to create expressive interactive pieces. Interestingly he described a desire to subvert the norm of digital perfection, using elements of randomness to perturb and provide unique and imperfect output. Ira talked about his recent work teaching creative coding to students of both Art and Computer Science, and the fantastic results they achieved. An interesting conversation emerged around our relationship with computers and creativity: is code a medium or tool?

Next up was @DJCAD’s @alinapier describing how, as a musician and linguist, he has been drawn in to the digital-making space. He illustrated the staggering rate of advances in technology in his lifetime by contrasting his young children’s immersion in the digital world against his own time of seeing the computer become ubiquitous and connected. His work involves assisting an array of students and academics in realising their digital ideas.

He daily uses #processing and other technology as digital ‘plumbing’, largely driven by function over form, chaining multiple technologies to solve problems. He described working with Professor Nigel Johnson to create “AESOP”, an installation which aggregates news feeds, and presents them on 9 1-metre-ong LED displays, forming a cluster of motorised signposts that point in the direction of the news.

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His last piece was a visualisation of the International Space Station passing over the world in a perfect sin wave, which sparked debate about the relationship between live data and deterministic process. This quick hack, made for NASA in less than an hour, illustrates the power of open technology to enable the rapid realisation of creative ideas.

Next up was @drchriscole talking about a long standing project visualising the human genome for public engagement. What started as little project for an open-doors day has grown into substantial piece of work. Pushing the boundaries of processing Christian and his collaborator @nickschurch produced work that was invited to a digital arts festival in Singapore. Wonderfully and humbly reflective, they talk about the various challenges they faced throughout the project – from testing code on massive screen on another continent to balancing their work with the interesting challenge of public engagement. They note this often throws up interesting biological findings and described various ways they would like to see this project grow.

Moving on to the School of Computing’s @AndyCobley, a geek hacker who took his first computing steps trying (and succeeding) to make music by picking up the electromagnetic noise of a microcontroller with a transistor radio. He is now working it the topical space of Big Data. Having architected a unique taught MSc in data science and another in business intelligence, he is well placed to offer a much-needed definition of what exactly Big Data is. He Identified the limits of an arbitrary link between size and Big Data, as this a is a rapidly-changing factor – instead one needs to think about volume, variety and velocity. He illustrated this with several examples: some typical – data generated in scientific experimentation and e commerce; and some less typical – such as sensing cows’ behaviours and relating them to mating.Describing a host of new NoSQL database systems springing up to meet the needs of this new data challenge sparked interesting debate about the volumes of data being generated in commerce and science and the very real challenges of not only storing it but moving it around.

Finally @sspog (me) talked about the new wind of interest in programming in the UK and around the world, as we strive for our kids to be makers of the technology amongst which they live –  not just in terms of the transferability of problems-solving skills, but also the pervasive nature of code across so many disciplines. Talking about my undergraduate teaching of Processing I described the exciting results we get when Design and Computer Science students collaborate. I talked about the varied outreach work I do with Processing – from “Code-a-Kilt” to the more recent work enabling students to produce interactive education resources inspired by Primitive Streak and the first 1000 hours of life.

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I closed by talking about a personal project “n x 42 ways to say ‘I love you’” – a creative distraction and antidote to the scientific rigour of writing up my thesis. By producing a range of visualisations seeded by the string ‘I love you’, I illustrate how processing enables me to explore creativity and visual aesthetic. The flipside being that these compact (42 lines or less) programs could form the basis of educational resources to support students motivated by the desire to create aesthetic screen-based things with code (not too far off the thesis after all!).

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Following pizza kindly provided by the School of Computing the 25-or-so attendees formed organically into small groups with the challenge of producing something Processing-shaped in less than two hours. Interestingly (though not surprisingly) the student contingent migrated to one end of the room. Quite nice to see students from three continents brought together to create something at one table. At the other end of the room the mix of biologists, animators, academics, product designers, computing teachers and a jeweller got to the task in hand.

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The outputs were as broad as they were interesting. One group produced a range of optical illusions with different arrangements of colours and shapes to trick the eye. Another group pulled a track from Spotify and produced a orbiting particle-system visualisation which reacted dynamically to the audio. We had animated scenes, interactive genes, a dynamic 3D model of chromosome 21. Roy (who had to leave early) mailed in a random potato generator. Last but not least we managed to sneak in a little #arduino with a visualisation seeded – literally – by (conductive) paint drying, being sure to note the massive anomaly where a wiring defect was fixed. This served as a lovely nod to the original point made by Ira about his love of the imperfection and unexpected outcome of working with traditional mediums.

These events absolutely depend upon who ends up in the room on the day. A great diversity of speakers and tremendous mix of backgrounds, abilities and energies in the room led to a fantastic day.

Thanks to the School of Computing at Dundee University for providing much-needed pizza: the Visual Research Centre at DCA for use of the space: our speakers for setting the scene and to our makers for getting hands-on.

I look forward to the next #hacknchat #makerparty at #dundee

some of the hacks can be found here on openprocessing.org

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