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A creative digital adventure at Anderson Ranch with Golan Levin

This July I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to go to Aspen on a week long digital creative course at the very special Anderson Ranch with non other than Digital Artist and Professor extraordinaire Golan Levin! Although the course was paid for there was still the journey and staying costs to consider which EasyNet amazingly sponsored giving me a unique opportunity to work with one of the greatest modern digital artists.

The course was Computer Vision with OpenCV + Processing , its goal is to using computer vision technique, things like motion detection / facial detection / 3d imaging / gesture interfaces but not for surveillance or gaming purposes but to make art (like this).

Full of excitement I went on my trip Colorado amongst the mountain. It stated with a long flight Chicago and then in a tiny plane to Aspen. Coming out of the plane was pretty special, what a view!

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I had the first day to explore the beautiful surroundings and take in a charity event for the deaf with some good old Country music next to the summer abandoned snow-lifts. I also went to explore Aspen itself, it has some beautiful buildings and it’s own unique lettering.

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And a massive pet store…

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And way too many fashion outlet stores and expensive handmade glass things, although there was also a few quaint galleries and some charming independent shops.  Behind the touristy center there was hidden gem, the awesome Aspen museum showing work by Brazilian sculpture Ernesto Neto. He makes things out of foam and stockings.

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The object was to lay down on one of these structures and have the top part lowered on to you, bags filled with stones and strong smelling herbs were lowered on various parts of your body as your view filled with the orange netting of the dome, it was a pretty unique experience.

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On Sunday I got a scope of Anderson Ranch such a lovely place all wooden buildings and arty atmosphere, stuff was getting painted, photographed, baked and welded, good vibes.

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I talked to few people there and it was a great mix of students, retirees and career types who just had get their creative fix. I met the team, Golan and his assistant Sarah and the other students who where an enthusiastic and fun bunch.

Then we sat down for dinner it was the most inspired organic creative meals I have ever eaten, the cooking staff we’re really engaged with making the food and succeeded amazingly in making great food, it was very clear it was going to be a very pleasurable week.

We started by exploring the rich history of interactive art and looking at a whole range of digital work beginning in the 60s up to now. It felt a bit weird to be in this beautiful environment that everyone was capturing in sculpture, painting or photograph and to be in photographic edit suite trying to keep the light out so we could look at videos, but it was a real joy as Golan shared some deep knowledge on the subject.

And so the week started proper, get up a 7 am, walk out of one the dormitories and get delicious breakfast, get a lecture and brainstorm ideas, eat wonderful lunch, more learning and making, amazing dinner, bring out the laptop again and then succumb to the jet-lag by 9 or 10 pm sleep and repeat. I am in the back in the green stripey shirt in my default pause head in hand trying to make the code work.

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As the days went on we went from lecture mode in to create mode, we had to pick our equipment did we want IR-, Thermal-, Depth-, Analogue-, Etc-Camera and what techniques would we use, do we want to gestures, face recognition, blob detection, and how are going to use that data, were we going to use the camera image itself or drive different visuals entirely. Everyone had good ideas, as for me.. well we’ll get in to that.

From the many technical gizmo’s Golan had brought along I chose to work with Leap Motion, the Leap Motion is a depth camera similar to a Kinect, which means that it capture not only the image of something but also it’s distance to the camera, it can ‘see’ the curvature of an object. This allows you to do things like film an object and then turn that object in 3d! This comes with some technical limitations off course but its pretty amazing technology that until recently was very expensive, definitely not cheap art material. The Leap is pretty cheap though and amazing, it’s a small device you put on the table and if you put your hands above it it works out where you hands and fingers are. This has a myriad of uses for gestural interfaces.

I did not want to do a gestural interface but instead wanted use this data about where the hand is and use it to project on to a hand taking in to account its geometry, projection mapping on to a moving hand. As if I were projecting a glove on top of the hand as it were. Golan was working on a similar project and gave me some amazing primers in working with the Leap Motion (his project later materialized as this).

It was HARD, very hard work, as I spent hours working with OpenFrameworks the wonderful creative C++ framework I have used for other projects in the past as well. Golan gave me a hand, he provided some example code and gave me some good pointers. The first hurdle was getting all the libraries to play together nicely, those of you who code will recognise this pain, getting OpenFrameWorks OpenCV library to work with the leap motion library was tough, I ended up having to port the Leap Motion C library into OpenFrameworks myself.

Slowly I made progress, enjoying the surroundings in between feverishly working on getting the thing to work. After the libraries there was the next problem, the math oh the lovely lovely 3d math. In order to line up the leap’s positional data with the field of view of the projector some tricky calibration and transformation had to be done. Golan helped out but at some point we had to call the cavalry, the wonderful digital artist Elliot Woods of cool art studio Kimchi and Chips, who after a bit of very generous skyping and emailing back and forth helped us fix our issues.

After calibrating the camera field it.. IT WORKED. As I projected a skeleton on my hand I was truly amazed by the possibilities of modern technology, it was great!

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I had needed all the hours I got and as I got it to work this week was sadly coming to a close.

I had had many good conversations around the ranch and drank a few beers in the idyllic garden of Anderson’s Ranch wonderful Andrea Wallace. On one of the last day we had an action of all the work donated by students a teachers of work made that week, it was a money raising event for the Ranch and boy was it rowdy. Every time we hit above 500 dollars the music went on and everyone rocked out for a brief moment. This some very funny fund raising for a good cause.

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On Saturday alarm went at 4:30 am, and just like that it was over, I had gotten to know my fellow students and had good times with the whole group and people in and around the ranch and was inspired by Golan and everyone else. Anderson Ranch is pretty special place in a tiny mountain village, I hope I’ll see you next year.

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About Simon Sarginson