MotionPhone is now available as an app for the iPad and iPhone. The app lets people create abstract animations together over a network, choosing colors, shapes, and forms that follow their fingers’ most subtle movements. By moving again-and-again in the same animated canvas, people can create layers and rhythms of abstract form and color, much like musicians layer track after track of audio in the studio sessions.
With MotionPhone, people can connect to each other for a visual “conversation” using Apple’s GameKit social networking technology. Ordinarily used for multiplayer games, we’ve used Apple’s gaming network for a social form of creativity that updates parlor games like Consequences and Exquisite Corpse into the era of digital animation. And MotionPhone’s app canvas is not merely a window, but an infinite two-dimensional world, where people can move about and have different visual conversations at different locations and scales as they pinch in or zoom out.
The original Motion Phone was one of the first networked works of art, and the first interactive networked animation system. Motion Phone began more than 23 years ago, when I was exploring how to make animation directly with my body. In film school at the Rhode Island School of Design, I was inspired by two experimental animation pioneers. The first, Oskar Fischinger, pioneered a cinema of pure abstraction. His earliest films are simple black and white forms, drawn frame-by-frame in charcoal. Yet the resulting movements, such as in Study Number 8 (1931), have incredible emotional power. The second pioneer, Len Lye, pioneered “direct cinema,” created by marking directly on the film surface with pens, inks, or by scratching emulsion off of black leader, as in his masterpiece Free Radicals (1957). These and other film artists’ work are sometimes referred to as Visual Music.
Oskar Fischinger’s Study Number 8, 1931. Courtesy Center For Visual Music. (c) Fischinger Trust 2012
Len Lye’s Free Radicals, 1958
In my enthusiasm for abstract animation, and for interactive computer graphics, I was searching for a way to improvise hard-edged abstraction like Fischinger’s by using my body directly the way Lye did, but with a computer rather than film. In an epiphany one evening staring at the computer, I realized that the cursor was the most interesting object on the screen. Here was the only place that my body, through the mouse, came into the machine. Based on this understanding, I created Motion Sketch, originally written for a Sun SPARCstation, which attaches the movements of one’s hand to the movements of abstract forms. These forms are laid down into a short one-second graphics loop whose temporal complexity results from the continuous layering of forms, creating a rich motion painting.
Motion Phone (1995) was a networked version of Motion Sketch, written for Silicon Graphics workstations. With this software, multiple computers, networked via the Internet, communicate together simultaneously through a shared animated canvas.
As an experiment in abstract visual communication, Motion Phone created new social rules. Instead of a fixed size canvas, Motion Phone provided an infinitely zoomable plane. Multiple “conversations” take place at any position or scale within this virtual world. However, each performer cannot be certain what the other is looking at.
Similarly, performers have independent control of frame rate. If one person sets their frame rate low, they can seem to run circles around the other, creating at miraculous speed and with incredible temporal precision.
Each performer can only erase his own work, and one can also choose to not display anyone else’s work if privacy is desired. However, the background color is set to the last person’s choice so that there is at least one thing to fight over: changes to background color are instantaneous and startling.
By working with a loop, the problem of communication latency becomes irrelevant. As the one-second loop continues over-and-over for each viewer, new material from other viewers appears whenever it arrives. As long as the strokes are revealed within a few seconds of their creation, all the creators have the sense of the lively progress within a shared dynamic canvas.
Motion Phone was first exhibited in 1995 at SIGGRAPH Los Angeles, in a fairly amateur presentation to see how people would respond (see the video above). At the show, I met many contemporaries in abstract animation and interactivity. Computer animation pioneer Larry Cuba spent hours at the SIGGRAPH installation, and introduced me to Elfriede Fischinger, Oskar Fischinger’s widow, whom I had a wonderful afternoon with together, listening to her reminisce about Oskar, and viewing her library, paintings, and notes. Larry also introduced me to Bill Moritz, the foremost scholar of abstract animation, who had me over his house for a long discussion and tour of his archive, where he gave me some rare Fischinger publications.
Motion Phone won a Prix Ars Electronica prize in 1996, a prize often referred to as the ‘Academy Awards’ of interactive art, and was invited to many international shows afterwards.
Several contemporary digital artists were inspired by Motion Phone, including Golan Levin, whom I showed the program to in 1996 while working together at Interval Research. The experience convinced him that he should learn how to program and make similar works, and we can all be grateful that he did, as he has become one of the foremost interactive artists and educators. When Golan later went to MIT he showed Motion Phone to Casey Reas and others in John Maeda’s legendary Aesthetics and Computation Group, where the beginner’s graphical language Processing was born. My colleague Lukas Girling whom I also met at Interval Research, was also excited by Motion Phone (as was I by his work in interactive music), and we began a collaboration that continues to this day with projects like OscilloScoop.
My hope is that MotionPhone and programs like it can serve as an alternative to ordinary communication like email, text, and video chat—a form of communication where people work together in a meditative, creative process to make something together, and where they experience the kind of concentrated attention that is familiar to artists, musicians, and meditators. This type of attention is different from the neurotic attention of video games, or the sedative concentration of television. Might it even be possible for this social form of networked animation art to become a mass medium?
Visit MotionPhone at Scott Snibbe Studio for news about the app, and the technical paper Interactive Dynamic Abstraction from the Proceedings of the Symposium on Nonphotorealistic Animation and Rendering, June 2000, describes technical and creative details.