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Innovation

Art for art's sake

Developers and designers are like chalk and cheese, they rarely go well together. And that's a great pity, as they're among the most creative people around, and when they do bring their skills to bear on the same problem, the results are often innovative and influential, pushing forward the state of the art – in both senses of the word.

Developers and designers are like chalk and cheese, they rarely go well together. And that's a great pity, as they're among the most creative people around, and when they do bring their skills to bear on the same problem, the results are often innovative and influential, pushing forward the state of the art – in both senses of the word.

Back when I worked for the dot-com era consulting company Scient, the company was experimenting with multi-disciplinary teams, mixing engineering, business and design consultants. Looking back now, it's interesting to see just how well that worked. Sure, we had differences of opinion, some of which were extremely heated. But there were also the moments when everything synced, and in an afternoon we'd achieved what could have taken weeks using more conventional processes. It certainly convinced me, and since then I've been interested in anything that helps to improve the designer/developer workflow. That's one of the reasons I've been fascinated by the influence of Bill Buxton at Microsoft, and the work Adobe has done to bring designers and developers together in its latest tools.

An early train last Saturday morning found Mary and me heading into the Southbank Centre and the BFI for an event that was being held as part of the 15th onedotzero digital arts festival. Alphalabs.cc was the unveiling of a project Microsoft and Nokia had collaborated on, bringing teams of developers and digital artists together, to produce a set of art-inspired mobile phone applications. Going by the name of Alphalabs.cc, it's intended to provide a place to for digital artists and developers to meet and produce and share code, using Creative Commons licences.

The first three Alphalabs.cc projects are fascinating. Developed in just two weeks, and by developers working in their spare time, they mixed art and technology in new and intriguing ways. Working in collaboration with musicians, installation artists and animators the teams built on the artists ideas to create new and intriguing apps. One was an accelerometer powered game that rolled a changing shape through a surreal landscape to a techno soundtrack, another was a reworking of the kaleidoscope, mixing camera images with fractal shapes, using sound to control how they grew and changed.

The app that really caught my attention, though, was produced by a team working with electronic composer Stuart Warren-Hill, best known as part of Hexstatic. Using a set of samples from 80s-era analogue synthesisers and drum machines, they built an animated 3D sequencer, Vequencer. What really set it apart from the rest of the projects was its networking capability, where up to eight phones would share a single composition, each controlling its own instruments, all of the synchronised at 120 bpm and with animations at 60 fps. That synchronisation meant that the team had solved what's actually a really rather hard computational problem, handling synchronisation in real time over a possibly busy network.

It was impressive work, and more to the point, it was also work that wouldn't have been done without the driving vision of a designer and artist, and the synergy that came from coders and artists working together and driving each other on to new and better solutions. If designers and developers don’t work together like that, we're left with projects that take longer than they should to deliver, and delivering only part of what they could. We work better when challenged, and code and art challenge each other, two sides of the same creative coin.

So here's my challenge for you: find artists and work with them. Bring art into your code, and code into their art. Break rules together (as all the best art does), and stretch yourself into doing something new and strange. I guarantee you'll be surprised by just what you can do, and just what you create.

Simon Bisson

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