Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Mozart of Creative Software

In a hundred years, when historians look back on the early development of computer technology, they will see things very differently than we do, and will likely appreciate things that don't appear on our current radars. When Van Gogh was doing some of his best work, it was the support of his brother that kept him from completely losing his sense of self. History has treated Van Gogh far more kindly than his contemporaries, and it's quite possible that he would have been both deeply gratified and furious at the way that the value of his artwork skyrocketed - not that it had any impact on his own rather frugal and difficult life. Like so many great artists, Van Gogh was only truly appreciated after he left the planet, and while this is sad, it's an unfortunate way to treat creativity. My buddy Paul Mavrides suffers from the same reality - his visual work stands alone. He is the single most amazing artist I've ever had the pleasure of calling friend, and his impact and talent will be truly appreciated two hundred years from now. It makes me sad beyond words.

The world of software development is often a relatively anonymous one, where teams of people gather together and work with one another, while being managed by other teams of people who in turn, must answer to other managers, account executives and other assorted power players. Lots of software ends up being designed by committee, and let me tell you, it shows. But you already knew that, if you've ever launched Microsoft Word.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, usually involving pairs of personalities, two humans bound together by serendipity and circumstance. As far as bitmapped graphics software, there are three pairs of deeply talented geniuses that, in essence, created the industry for image editing software on personal computers. Mark Zimmer and Tom Hedges produced The Realist, which later became ImageStudio and ultimately ColorStudio. They also cooked up the original version of Fractal Painter. Then there's Keith McGreggor and Jerry Harris, the dynamic duo behind the rather wonderful PixelPaint. It all culminated with the brothers who changed the world, Tom and John Knoll, and their historic garage project, Photoshop. I'll be writing about these folks in future blog posts, as I was an integral part of all three efforts. Lots of stories, some good, some great, and some which will leave you scratching your head and wondering why certain people made amazingly bad decisions.

But this entry will look at one single person, someone who has never really been recognized for his awesome (and I don't use that world lightly) contributions to the software industry. When future software engineers look to the past for inspiration and understanding, they will all talk about the one crazy Frenchman who could only march to the beat of his own drummer.

His name is Eric Wenger. He is the Mozart of the software world.

You might not know the name, you may not be familiar with the fruits of his coding prowess. If you're a friend of mine, you've heard me sing his praises. And for good reason - Wenger has consistently been the lead vision behind some of the most creative applications to ever see the light of day. He is a one-of-a-kind, simply unreal genius, an artist, musician and tool maker unlike any other. His creations have been a large part of the reason that I stay interested in the field of software design.

I first encountered Eric while I was at the original MacUser magazine, back in the days when Felix Dennis ruled the roost and Steven Bobker locked himself in his office for days at a time. A box arrived at the office, with a cryptic cover and the words "Art Mixer". As I was the resident graphics guru, it was dropped on my desk without any explanation. I opened that box, installed the software from the multiple floppy disks, and spent the next few hours clicking, grinning and gasping, absolutely and totally amazed by what I was seeing. Art Mixer could do things that remain unmatched by any software - 3D paintbrush strokes with depth prioritization, nested graphics documents with realtime, dynamic links, 3D image mapping (in 1986!), and lots of other totally unique and utterly wild stuff. I proceeded to spend some of Felix's money on a long distance call to Paris, and spoke to Eric at length. His English was better than my French - an easy thing to accomplish - and we spoke for a couple of hours. He was pleased that I understood what he had done with Art Mixer, and I was blown away by his creativity. We stayed in touch over the years - mind you, these were the days before the Internet, so email was not quite as universal as today, but I resigned myself to big phone bills, economic considerations thrown to the wind.

I first met Eric in person at a MacWorld Expo, and it was instant friendship. He is a charming, brilliant and irreverent individual, and that last attribute deeply endeared him to me. I think he appreciated my enthusiasm and interest in his work. He mentioned that he was dipping his toes in serious 3D for the first time, and mailed me a disk with an early version of his first 3D modeling and rendering package.

It was called Bryce. His first 3D program, and it was a planet builder. It was clear that Eric was on another planet, a better one than ours.

I fell into Bryce instantly and completely, and the thing that really hooked me was the Deep Texture Editor. I had never seen anything quite like it, the power behind it and the range of bizarre and luscious textures it could produce blew my mind wide open. I would place a camera inside of a semi-translucent sphere, spend hours tweaking the ABC components of the procedural noises, and stare at the rendering process with a child-like wonder that made happy. I was hooked. This was fun in a way that software doesn't often feel like - I wanted to wrap my brain around it for hours, days if left to my own devices. And I'll tell you a secret - Eric has a version of Bryce that renders images way faster than the commercial releases, and lets him attach sounds to objects in a scene, and render animations with the surround sound audio tracks, complete with corresponding Doppler effects - as you zoom by objects, they increase and decrease in pitch. Very cool stuff.

A year or two later, I met a guy named Kai Krause at the Ted 3 conference in Monterey (Adobe had invited me to do some demos in a room they had at the event). He introduced me to a longtime hero of mine, Roger Dean, and in exchange, I told Kai about this amazing guy I knew in Paris. That's how Kai got ahold of Eric, ironically. It was my fault.

Bryce was released by Kai's software company, and that provided Eric with an income, and the inspiration to head off in new directions. The thing about Wenger is that he is the kind of person who does not want to learn anyone else's way of working, he's too impatient to master an interface that does not work along the lines of his own thoughts and creative process. He'd rather make his own tools. He's an artist who makes his own brushes, mixes his own paints, finds canvases that are made of exotic materials, coming up with stuff that no one else has ever considered.

From this mind, we have MetaSynth. And ArtMatic. Then there's VTrack. And Videodelic. And others which may or may not come back to life. Only Wenger knows.

Eric does not make software that falls squarely into existing categories. He creates entirely new metaphors, original and innovative approaches that no one else seems to ever consider. In the world of sound design, MetaSynth is a secret weapon. No one will admit to using it, for fear that their competition will find out about it and add it to their own arsenals. At the most basic level, it converts images to sound, putting an original spin on the player piano roll and extending it into other dimensions. It's a synthesizer that looks at a 2D image and considers every pixel a discrete oscillator. Most synths have one, two, maybe three oscillators. MetaSynth has infinite oscillators. Just about anything can be an oscillator: complex wavetables, samples, granular audio generators, jelly sandwichs, anything. The Image Filter is an Ultimate Audio Monster, terrifying and gorgeous.

MetaSynth is totally unique, capable of conjuring sounds like nothing else on this planet, and there is absolutely no equivalent, no competitor, nada. You've heard it in movies and music, but you'd never know it. It's an 8000 pound invisible gorilla. It stomps on the terra and emits the most outrageous aural entities that anyone could ever imagine.

Inspired, Wenger decides that he needs a source of wacky, complex images to feed to MetaSynth, something designed to make procedural textures that he can convert to sound. Forget Photoshop plugins, Eric wants something that fits his uniquely warped mind. He comes up with the most single terrifying, mind-bending, immersive visual synthesizer ever conceived, ArtMatic, and adds its insane, phase-modulated animation abilities almost as an afterthought. Ever since first touching this algorithmic beast, my life has never been the same - Artmatic is the one program I can absolutely lose myself in at any moment, it's the ultimate high in software psychedelia, and there's nothing like it anywhere else in the galaxy of applications. It's become one of my own secret weapons, and I'm happy to admit it on this blog. I've rendered High Definition animation with it that looks like nothing else you've ever seen, and I've cooked up a luscious procedural texture that is 32,000 by 32,000 pixels in size. At 72 dpi, it's a whopping 45 square feet.

People buy Macintoshes in order to run Wenger's software. He's never bothered to port his code to Windows, and it seems like he never will, or let anyone else do the port. Apple barely knows who he is, and has never tried to support his coding efforts in any serious fashion. It's not like Wenger is concerned about Apple's lack of interest in his creative output - he doesn't seem to care much about commerce, he could give a damn about publicity, he's a terrible businessman. I know that his business partner will likely send me a scathing email if he reads these words, but it's the honest, unvarnished truth. Eric makes tools for himself, and if you want to go along for the ride, great. But don't expect software design by focus groups here, Eric knows what he wants and that's all he really cares about. If you can't figure out his software, it's not his fault. You'll need to look at the world through his eyes in order to get the best use of his software.

Eric is Van Gogh with a mouse, he's Mozart with a MIDI keyboard. He's the most talented software artist in the world, and the implications of his work will only truly be understood many years from now. Without his contributions, the world of creative software would be a much poorer place. You won't find much about this man on the Internet, but I suspect history will treat him better than we did. One day, I will visit him in Paris and be amazed at whatever he's made since the last time we laughed together. Eric, thank you for your creativity and your wonderful mind. You made the fields of graphics, animation and audio creation more interesting, and you've shown us what software can be when it's the product of a single, strong creative vision.


JR said...

Ha! First post on the first release. ;) 'Bout time ya did this dude, you got the stories and insights for sure.

While I didnt get to see much other then Bryce, somehow Bryce was enough. It's so much...MORE...then what anyone thinks it is. Thats what I love about it. I think maybe the only person to truly know the program and all it can accomplish is Eric. Hell, maybe he doesnt even know. Thats how deep Bryce really truly is.

Being deep into 3D Modeling and composite, I hate it when I get those looks from the CG snobs who relegate themselves to exclusively Lightwave, MAX, Maya...and look down thier nose at your for tooling around in Bryce. Some people just dont get it, nor get how powerful Bryce is.

I love the deep texture editing, but I really dig the elevation/white level painting/modeling. I did a piece after seeing a FOX special on Egypt, called "Osiris" that was done almost exclusively with that, in Bryce. It ended up on Metacreations "Image of the Day" to my surprise.

I'm still tripping around Bryce, despite working a lot in MAX...and I still see something different nearly every time. It's a jewel. Thanx to Eric for such a world to play in.

Jeremy said...

Is Metasynth made for dummies like me who can figure out Garage Band or is it strictly for pros?

Peter Miller said...

Well, I can only concur, of course!

In my (admittedly heavily biased) opinion, Eric's greatest achievement is ArtMatic. Bryce was an astounding piece of work, but DAZ has trivilaized it over the years and really added nothing conceptually to the original Eric/Kai vision.

ArtMatic, on the other hand, continues to evolve. It has changed from a gadget for making simple canvases for Metasynth into a formidable artistic tool to which there is nothing even remotely comparable.

CeLeste said...

Hey David!!!!
Celeste here!!! I googled you finally...and look what I´ve found! Your blog! hahaha
Well, I hope your visit to Argentina this time sea muy divertida!
I`m looking forward to see you at the consultorio soon!
kisses and hugs!

ArchiTXT said...

Greetings David, all,

Your premise is accurate. Our world is hungry for figures such as Eric to shatter the mind-numbing dullness of the current state of software, which business 'leaders' require us to conform to as they routinely ignore/dismisse/cheapen the reality of human interaction and what drives us to excellence as a species. Seriously. Where's the fun-factor and why isn't anyone measuring it?
Everyone look at Yahoo Mail to compare and contrast what Google has done w/Gmail. Let's appreciate what the polymath nerdling savants have done by spitting into the wind of the common 'business' sense that drove Microsoft to make HotMail as pathetic and awkward to use as it is... but this just touches the surface of where this all needs to go.

I am a creative professional fortunate enough to have had a few 'genius' insights and even made products out of the minor ones - which has allowed me to meet and work with some real pioneers. David, I was unaware of your own involvement with McGregor and Harris, but was privy to meeting them when they flew out to California to show off their still-incubating color paint program to suitors, one of whom I worked for, and eager to try it out on a large color display for the first time. That was SuperMac who shipped the only larger than Apple color monitor {640x480 -v- 1024x768} and soon they made a deal to license PixelPaint. I am pleased McGregor made me the first artist beta tester and still have the handwritten feedback I regularly faxed to Georgia - to the chagrin of my wife staring at rows of file-cabinets full of project notes stretching back 20yrs. When I was Artist in Residence at RasterOps, who made the first 24-bit color card for the Mac, I got to meet Zimmer & Hedges via Marla Milne {where-away be she now?} for their dubl-super-secret ImageStudio {Gawd, it was like pulling teeth to get into her beta program even as a co-marketing partner with LetraSet and her blessing}. Likewise, I got to know the Knoll brothers before Adobe snapped on golden handcuffs - although contact was sporadic I did enjoy noodling with BarneyScan and it's lovely feathered-edge selection options. Of course I've met Kai and all I'll say is there appears to be a link between his ego and fixation with sphincter-like control interfaces.
Good times. Seminal moments in our industry.

Against this lot, and many other's hovering right behind them, stands Eric and his singular efforts to explore new realms of dynamic creation. I stand in awed amazement at what Eric has been able to forge. As an artist with strong technical predilections I was also immediately drawn to his work and agree with you that our times have been waiting for a figure with keen intuitive insights and enough technical moxie to rig an ultra-cool extra-long lever clever enough to move the world. This guy ups the vibe and inspires us {I count myself} to excel beyond the improbable. Perhaps if a 'Salieri' had appeared to our modern Mozart a rivalry would have elevated him enough to show up on industry radar with a stronger signal - so to speak.
I agree he may not be noticed and given proper recognition in his lifetime, but it's not too late for the Muse to strike some executive who always wanted to be an artist enough to champion Eric's work to a wider stage. This is what Kai Krause was eminently positioned to do for him and should have, but appears to dislike sharing the spotlight.

As an aside, the U & I software site is a poor GUI presentation. it is less-than encouraging for creative professionals to look at the {dare I say it} programmer graphics {or at least aesthetics} he presents and feel confident about what he wants them to buy into. Granted, the whispered clues pros relay to each other jump the barrier and drives enough business for him to continue, but I am not surprised at how little he is mentioned in development press and circles. Maybe this post of yours will be a tipping point?

If Eric and his business partner would like to re-jigger their site I'd be happy to lend my modest skills and proud to play a role. I'd shill my site and services by h{URL}ing strings at everyone, but would rather keep this conversation on a simpler plane. I'll follow up with an email to them and hope it isn't tagged as spam, but if they read this and are interested please contact David - who knows how to reach me.

- Jonathan "Wraptures" Gibson -

BTW - Didn't Eric make the stunning 1-bit multi-plane image transformation {System 7?} software called Magic Slate as well? I came out of the Rapidograph pointillism school of illustration and would love to see just that wee snippet of code turned into a PShop plug-in and join us in this XXIst century - whoever wrote it. I often want to work with strong tiny lines and patterns, but cannot get PShop, nor Illustrator, to behave as I wish.

Anonymous said...

Great post! When do we get to see more??? Fascinating piece and I'd never heard of this guy. Wow! How many other facelss geniuses are out there???