Workshop in Delft


We held another Max/MSP/Jitter workshop from the 27th to the 30th of March in the Dutch city of Delft (yes, as in “that color blue associated with porcelain”). Our hosts were in the Industrial Design faculty at the Technical University. In fact you could take a nice “back way” walk back to the center of town and pass by the porcelain factory at the end of the day. It was a week of largely good Dutch weather, too, meaning that the sun was out pretty much all week. Since we went on Daylight Savings Time while I was there, our dinners were in sunlight.

Owing to the wonder of internet booking and google map scales, my hotel was a ways out of town, out by the motorway. This wound up being a good thing, oddly enough – you had the sense of really leaving somewhere when you went back at the end of the day.

Being 15 or 20 minutes from the center of town in a country where there is a decent mass transit system isn’t that much of a problem. Here’s my bus stop out by the motorway – notice the great view of the sand pit, frontage road, and interface. If I’d fallen asleep on the bus and missed my stop in the evening, I would have wound up in the Hague.

The hotel itself had several interesting features. One of them [which I cannot document photographically] was my room’s location between two gentlemen whose religious commitments dictated that they set their alarm clocks to rise for morning prayer at an um… early hour. The fact that I was between two men provided some interesting stereo wake-up calls (complete with a random left/right delay time) at a time I did not leave instructions for a wake up call. Never really saw the two guys much. Happily, morning prayers are a pretty quiet business, apart from the alarm clocks.

Another interesting feature was the presence of perhaps a half-dozen feral roosters and a retinue of hens. Well, not feral, exactly – they just lived in the vacant lot next door to the hotel, and were fed by the hotel staff. They began crowing at about 5 AM every morning tag-team style. If you have little direct experience with roosters, then you may imagine that they crow once or twice and then shut the heck up. Not so – they crow until they’re hoarse, even when crowing in shifts, as these roosters did. A hoarse rooster more closely resembles the sound of an elderly Buddhist nun being horribly tortured than it does a rooster, which should mean that you would never be able to sleep through the racket. On the morning of the second day, I managed to do so.

The morning bus ride ran along the old city wall of Delft, which meant that I got a daily look at the old Eastern Gate of the city. Some mornings I was more in a state to appreciate this historical moment than others.

The workshop itself was held on the University Campus at the Industrial Design building.

Often, the general makeup of a workshop varies widely, but can usually be described in terms of a percentage of people interested in using Max for audio, video, or installation work. While those people certainly were well represented, quite a few of the attendees were people from various design labs or working groups associated with both the Technical Universities at Delft or Eindhoven. This concentration of expertise was balanced and spiced by the presence of choreographers, filmmakers, audio designers, and new media artists, but it was more strongly monocultural than usual. This made the workshop interesting for me in that I could see Max in action in a new and interesting setting (in my experience, anyway) – our software in the hands of engineers who used it for various kinds of rapid interface prototyping and design.

A number of the engineers who attended the workshop used Phidgets in their prototyping work (http://www.phidgets.com). If you’re not familiar with them, they’re a group of USB interface-based sensor tools that come with an available set of Max externals (developed by Aadjan van der Helm, who’s a colleague at TU-Delft) that work effortlessly with the Phidgets drivers. If you’re familiar with self-clocked interface objects like the mousestate or hi Max externals, they’re robust and quite easy to use. There’s a max external for each of the basic modules, and you just plug and start playing. It was very interesting for me to see them in action and get a feel for using them with Max – I now suspect that I hadn’t heard much about them because they just worked, and no one asked for customer support on projects they were working on. Phidgets boards of various sorts showed up with nearly everyone al week (there’s one in this photo along with the guy’s lunch and snacks, for example).

I can’t really show you much in terms of the interface stuff being done by these design engineers, so you’ll have to take my word about being really interested in the breadth of ideas about tangible interface design and the use of enabling technologies in some very interesting contexts. Also, world-class office toys. The commonly shared idea is that for them, Max is the first thing people use to prototype their ideas at the proof-of-concept stage, and that it’s gaining a wider audience (by word-of-mouth, if nothing else).

They were a very interesting group of people to teach and to socialize with.

Brendan Wypich (who’s assisted in a couple of previous workshops) was along for this trip, and did his usual fantastic job of making us seem even more competent. Since he has some professional interests in the field of industrial design, this workshop was a chance for him to meet some interesting people and see some cool stuff in addition to being his usual helpful self. Since I have some experience in the Netherlands, I tried to ease his cultural transition by helping to acquaint him with the cultural traditions of Dutch cuisine (pannenkoeken, stampot, rijstafel) and – in a spirit of Euro-inclusiveness – encouraging him to sample a number of both Dutch and Belgian beers.

One evening, for example, our taste-tour led us to beer and dinner in a restaurant which is the original home of the gold and silversmith’s guild for the city of Delft. It was not all drudgery, as you can see.

This is the part of the journal where I show pictures of the workshop in action. Of course, you can’t see the transfer of ideas, the possible growth of understanding or enthusiasm, or the seeds of something wonderful to come; it just looks like I’m pointing or ranting or waving, and that people are more or less paying rapt attention. Here are some of those pictures. Handsome bunch, though, aren’t they?

One evening Brendan and I went out dinner with some of the class and were joined by Mattijs Kneppers, who many of you may know from the Max list. While I’m sure that he might have been a trifle disappointed that I do not, as a rule, drop loads of Brainiac Max kernel voodoo patter at the drop of a hat, he was very gracious, enthusiastic, and interesting company. And I won’t spoil what’s to come by telling you what it is that he showed us, but I think it’s safe to say that you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and that the substance of many of his Max list postings will take on a new significance for you. So stay tuned.

It’s been the custom in recent workshops to invite a guest speaker when we can – someone who can come in and talk about how they use Max for their own work. In general, this seems to work particularly well toward the end of things, since it’s likely that the students can actually read a patch when the artist opens it up by the end of a workshop. In fact, we opened this workshop with something similar – a look ahead - with Brendan talking a little bit about the art projects he’s been involved in and my showing Peter Nyboer’s Livid Union as one example of an application built using Max.

Our special guest this time was Justin Bennett – an English sound artist who lives and works in the Hague. Justin came in on the last day and talked a bit about his work, opened lots of patches and walked the class through the ways that his patches involved reusable sections, talked about designing performance interfaces, and that sort of thing. It was very inspiring to have an artist in dialogue about ideas about making information visible and navigable with the engineers in the group who approached similar questions.

So that’s more or less where I was and what happened. I’d like to thank my class for being such a great group of people, and for helping to make this a memorable week in the Netherlands. It was a very enjoyable time, and an interesting chance to see and think about Max in use in a very different environment.