On Visualizers

I watched the iTunes Visualizer (Magnetosphere) for about 2 hours straight the other night, and it blew my mind. I’ve looked at it lots of times before, but this time, for some reason, it was just amazing to watch. For a long time I’ve kinda felt that visualizers and screensavers are like the future album art. Well, they exist now, but even after all this time, they still haven’t found their feet.

To me, visualizers are very similar to a Lava lamp, or a fish tank in the home. But the odd thing is, people don’t dedicate a space in the home for visualization. Well, not yet they don’t, but they will soon. Visualizers are kinda stuck with the computer. But a computer is a different vibe thing compared to a fish tank or a lava lamp. It’s not always ambient in that way, but visualizers make it so. But even then, computers do a lot of stuff, so you always have to turn the visualizer/screensaver off to get back to what you were doing.

I think it’s a very meditative and pleasant thing to have a visualizer on in the home. Very contemplative. But I think there’s something lacking that stops them from becoming domesticated. On the one hand, it’s the current crossover that exists between televisions and computers. We’re kind’ve at crossing point where one day, they probably merge and be the one thing.

I was going to make this post just the other day, since I’d been thinking about it for years, and now just this week we’ve heard about Google TV.

It’s basically going to turn TV into the internet, and at the same time lounge the internet. I gave a presentation all about this theme in one of my fine art crits once (which no-one seemed to get), and it was the basis for my installation piece “Death To Yevgeny Nourish”.

I’ve always felt the internet is a bit of a hunchbacks experience. Ergonomically bad. You really have to bend over it. And it’s like, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it was all about integration. The computer became the centre of everything. But now, in this new decade, i think we’re going to see technology grow back out into separation. It’s finding where it needs to be. Small computers for hands on the move, iPads for ergonomic internet. And now the web comes back to the TV for experiences more suited to the lounge room.

It’s always striked me dumbfounded that this option, on a Mac, never existed in Front Row. All you really need is a bookmarks list, a remote, and a sync to your desktop TV bookmarks. I always scour the net trying to find someone who coded a hack that makes Front Row a remote controllable internet. Mac’s even shipped for a while there with a remote control!

But what does this all have to do with Visualizers?

Brian Eno, in his published diary A Year With Swollen Appendices, talked about screensavers as being more computationally efficient in the computer than CD-Roms. Video is a huge chunk of data, and a computer is much more efficient at throwing around math, and does a much easier job at creating nice visuals coded from a file size as small as 96k, than it does in trying to deal with large chunks of video.

And I agree. We used to use screensavers to stop images being burned inside our tv’s, but we don’t need that anymore, so the form has carried over into music-visualization. Eno liked the After Dark screensaver, whlie the Synthesoft series and Electric Sheep artwork have been notable additions to the lineage.

And as monitors have advanced, screensavers have grown away from a technical band-aid to a complex aesthetic function. And yet even after Eno’s call to arms in the 90’s, visualization seems to stay stuck with Media Players.

The iTunes one is probably the best one out there, but then, that visualizer becomes a representation for a persons entire music collection. While there are others out there (or see a list of notable visualizers at the Wiki page), it seems no one has yet to create a music specific visualizer.

Like almost everything else, music has become computerized. A whole generation has ripped their music collection to hard drive, and either given away their disc collections or sold them to second hand stores or ebay. Further, the term ‘internet album’ is a grossly misused term. To be truthful, they are albums distributed via the internet, via the network. But they do not use the internet as medium.

In this sense of an internet album, sites like Oculart are probably closer to the mark, while Flying Lotus latest collaboration with Aaron Meyers hits the nail on the head – but what we’ll see in the future is full album softwares, with multi-aesthetic changes.

Even the Thinner label is a step in the right direction, with animated album covers for each release, though again it falls short of being a true, full-screen, multi-track representation.

Future albums of music will be websites, or applications that can be skipped backward and forward as easy as a remote changes tracks. They’ll have animated, algorithmic album ‘covers’ – but steer clear of the DVD-esque model of iTunes LP. Again, this is a throwback to ‘disc’ technology, not an embrace of the computer as medium. Like Eno offers : it’s not about simply offering files, or video. It’s about using the medium : its about using code.

Up until now the music video has been the preferred time-based visual representation for musicians and sound artists. Even software based efforts are released as rendered video. But I think this decade will see a new age. An age of the music visualizer as self contained artist website and/or application/program.

And Eno is still ahead of his time – with 77 Million Paintings he created an application that acted like a music visualiser. And in Bloom, Trope and Air – Eno finally realizes his highly acute vision from the 90’s.

The iPhone was the first ergonomic way to experience interactivity and coded media, and now it’s extended to the iPad. But Google TV will, i think, bring about a new dawn of the internet music visualizer.

That is, an album of music which has it’s own visualizer. Artist specific. I see a future that gets away from proprietary players like iTunes, and instead becomes a place where musicians and programmers collaborate to meet a new end. Heck, by then, it will probably be a feature of iTunes. I’m surprised it isn’t already.

Since Google TV will allow bookmarks, you can essentially create folders of websites that are specific audio-visual experiences, and, as you would hit shuffle in iTunes, shuffle the internet, and turn your living room into a jukebox of coded, constantly evolving, generative AV.

So it’s time to move away from the model of visualizer as plug-in for media centre apps, and tie visuals to music in stand-alone apps or websites, as albums.

With a whole community behind the creative coding scene in apps like Processing, Cinder and OpenFrameworks, it’s only a matter of time before things start to materialize in the home, since Google Chrome is built right into Google TV.

In some ways it could even be an answer to music piracy and a way for artists to charge for music again. You pay for access to the website, and access is granted via protected password.

It’s a project I’d love to work on. And if anyone would like to collaborate on such please get in touch. But no doubt Brian Eno will be there first, with a generative, algorithmically evolving ambient audio visual website on the day Google TV is released 😉

Welcome to the New Decade.

May, 2010.

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