Robert Hodgin Interview

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This email interview, with questions from Casey Reas, took place from 25 June – 12 Nov 2008.

Robert Hodgin is a founding partner of the Barbarian Group and heads up its west coast office. He loves Processing and the audio-visual experimentation that he showcases at www.flight404.com. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in sculpture in 1998.


When and why did you start using Processing?

I think I started using Processing in early 2003, but it might have been even earlier than that. I first found out about it after seeing some interesting work on a friend's experimental Flash site. Manny Tan, of uncontrol.com, and I were both Flash experimental artists. It was quite the popular thing to do back then. While browsing Manny's site, I saw a couple experiments that ran way too fast for them to be Flash. I was intrigued.

I followed a link to proce55ing.net and started reading about the project. It seemed easy enough and I was happy to see that Processing was geared towards people like me: people who love to code but still fancy themselves 'designers'.


Manny Tan! I miss that guy. We used to work together at i/o 360 digital design in New York. There's some great work at uncontrol.com. What do you think happened to the tremendous energy around experimental Flash work?

I think people just got bored. Flash sites all started to look the same. People just seemed to be running out of new things to do with it. However, that energy seems to be coming back. Flash is much more capable than it was when I first started using it. There is access to bitmap data, audio data, and with 3rd party libraries, 3D is finally possible without having to fake it with manual scale changes. Things seem to be getting interesting again.


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Magnetic Ink, 2007. Robert Hodgin


So, how do you use Processing now?

I use it for everything. Both work and play. For many years, I was a Flash developer and all of my work with the Barbarian Group was Flash up until a couple years ago. We starting thinking about allowing your passions dictate how you work and it started to make more and more sense for us to expand and take on new projects outside of the Flash advertising work with which we became known. We still do plenty of Flash development, but we are also expanding into software development, installation work, and non-traditional web-based advertising.

This transition allowed me to spend all my time with Processing. Finding the clients was a bit difficult at first. Because of our reputation as a Flash shop, we didn't really get many requests for non-Flash work. I began posting more and more Processing-made experiments to Flight404 and after a while, people started to take notice. We now get many requests from people to have us develop anything from iTunes visualizer plugins to interactive installations. The most exciting aspect of this is that clients are actually asking for Processing by name.


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Solar demo, 2008. Robert Hodgin


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Still from Radiohead contest video, 2008. Robert Hodgin


I'm curious about people asking for "Processing by name." Do you think the software has changed, the attitudes around it have changed, or are people just getting better at making things with it?

Probably all three. The software has definitely gotten more solid over the last couple years. Because of this stability, people have gotten better at making things with it. And because the projects have gotten better, the attitudes are starting to change.

There was definitely that Processing look early on. Everything seemed to have the same aesthetic, which consisted of rainbow hues, solid color backgrounds, and an affinity for using circles for everything. This was the case with Flash as well. I imagine many of the early Flash adopters all went through their flying text phase. People got used to how HTML dictated the look of websites. Everything had to be on a grid and nothing could move. When Flash came along, people realized they no longer had to deal with static text. The first thing many of us did was to make text fly across the screen because, well... because now we could! What's more awesome than flying text!

I think the same thing happened with Processing. Especially for those of us coming from a Flash background. We suddenly had no library and no timeline so we defaulted to the easiest thing to draw. Circles! And tons of them. And in all manner of rainbow colors because Processing allowed us to toggle to HSB if we were bored with RGB. After a while, especially after it became apparent that OpenGL would be a lot of fun to do with Processing, the projects gained more personality and started to reflect the sensibilities of the creator instead of the tool.


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Audio Landscape, 2008. Robert Hodgin


How has your work and experience with Processing changed over the years?

For one, I have become a much more comfortable coder. This comfort has allowed me to branch out a bit. I use Eclipse now. I am transitioning over to coding Java directly and have even dabbled a bit with C++. I am learning some of the more obscure OpenGL functionality. I am starting to use GLSL. All of these scared me for the longest time.

This speaks to the brilliance of Processing. It is that perfect middle ground. It's not C++ so it is instantly more approachable. And it isn't a proprietary pseudo-code so learning it isn't a means to a dead-end. I was pleasantly surprised to see how easy it was to transition from Processing to coding directly in Java. I was also pleasantly surprised that Processing unexpectedly showed me the way to OpenGL.


Please tell us more about something you've made recently?

In the last couple months, I have been working on a real-time audio visualizer with fellow Barbarian and coding extraordinaire Andrew Bell. We were asked by Erasmus based in the UK to create an audio visualizer for the Relentless Energy Drink brand that could be used as a backdrop for concert venues. Processing was ideal for this job because of the short deadline and the ability to use OpenGL to render.

I have to say, we are both quite proud of the result. The realtime application runs beautifully and now you can download an iTunes version from the RelentlessEnergy.com site. This job was ideal in a couple key ways. Andrew and I were give nearly complete freedom with the creative, and the job was just outside our comfort zone so we had to learn a great deal to make it run the way we envisioned it should.


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Relentless (The REV visualizer), 2008. Robert Hodgin and Andrew Bell


Very impressive. There's a similarity to Magnetosphere, but this pushes it far beyond. What were the challenges overcome to make this happen?

Working with audio input can be a huge mess. There are so many different types of music that it seems nearly impossible to make a visualizer that will behave as well for ambient as it would for speed metal. I spent a lot of time just tweaking the audio analysis parameters to try and find a happy medium. I also implemented a basic auto-leveler so that the visualizer would do its best to adjust if the quality of the audio changes dramatically but it is still far from perfect. They people at EchoNest are doing some amazing things with audio analysis but I believe they still require preprocessing the audio instead of analyzing in real time.

Most of the challenges were the result of trying to implement something that neither of us had attempted before. Andrew dove into learning Vertex Buffer Objects to get the frame rate up, and Frame Buffer Objects to get the background textures to bleed into view. He also implemented shaders so I finally had the opportunity to learn some basic GLSL coding and I have to admit, I am hooked. There is something really pure about coding in GLSL. I hope to learn much more about it over the coming months.


What type of work are you excited to create in the future? More visualizers or installations? Something else?

Generally I get excited about anything in the something else category. I would like to take a break from doing visualizers and try to get some more installation work. I can't seem to complete shake off my schooling so my BFA in Sculpture is burning a hole in my pocket. I am still very enamored with creating physical things.

I would love to get away from the computer monitor a bit and explore ideals spatially. If I could only get my hands on a 3D printer, laser cutter, and CNC router. MMMmmmmm, possibilities!!!


Thank you Robert!


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