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User Preferences: Tech Q&A With Scott Draves

<p>Each week we chat about the tools of the trade with one outstanding creative to find out exactly how they do what they do.</p>

Kevin Holmes

Dreams in High Fidelity II on 3 projectors creating an immersive installation at Lexus Hybrid Art, Moscow.

Each week we chat about the tools of the trade with one outstanding creative to find out exactly how they do what they do. The questions are always the same, the answers, not so much. This week: Scott Draves

The Creators Project: Who are you and what do you do?
Scott Draves:
My name is Scott Draves and I am a software artist. I invented the Flame algorithm and founded the Electric Sheep. I started programming back in the 70s and won my first art prize (from Ars Electronica) in 1993. I was doing data visualization in the 80s, and interactive art in the 90s. I was the first artist to make Open Source a part of their process, and my software is now widely used by others, for example the cover of Paul Simon’s last album and Stephen Hawking’s last book. I got a PhD in Computer Science from CMU and also worked for a bunch of tech startups in the Bay Area, including a couple years at the chip company Transmeta. Back then I did a lot of VJ performance and went to Burning Man for many years and all that. I only started really selling my art at museum-type prices, getting large commissions and gallery shows, around 6 years ago. These days I continue my independent work, as well as working for Google as an engineer and being a husband and father.

What hardware do you use?
My software runs on many platforms including pretty much any Mac, PC, or Linux laptop or desktop. We are also about to release mobile and tablet versions for iOS and Android. For my high-end limited edition work, I use small solid state devices running Linux. For testing and development purposes I have all different kinds of computers at home, but the one I sit down at by default is a 27" iMac. I really like the Ubuntu desktop, but too often I need Photoshop and After Effects. I also have a 12TB NAS/RAID. Since the Electric Sheep is an internet distributed system, the server is an important part of it. That runs on a Linux VPS (linode ftw!).

What software do you use?
Primarily I write my own. And the project has gotten big enough that, by “I” I mean “we.” The Electric Sheep is a team, there’s no way I could do all this work on so many different platforms all on my own. It started out as all open source volunteers, but now I often pay, though really it’s a labor of love by all. So really the software we use are the compilers and APIs that all programmers use. For editing programs I’ve used Emacs for more than 20 years. But then sometimes, usually to produce documentation or to submit to a competition, I need to edit some photos or videos and then I use Adobe’s tools. Oh and for the web, I use Chrome.

Electric Sheep – 2min Version

If money were no object, how would you change your current setup?
Computers are so cheap these days, it’s not really the limiting factor for most of what I do. Twenty years ago it was a big issue, but now they are pretty much commodified. One thing I would like is a better off-site backup system. Right now I have a friend who holds some external drives for me, but I can’t update them regularly, and backups are really important to me. The other thing I would like is a faster internet connection. Right now we have 50/10 Mbit/s (megabits per second) and that’s fine for browsing the web but not for uploading uncompressed HD video…

What fantasy piece of technology would you like to see invented?
A computer fast enough to render Electric Sheep in HD at 30fps (frames per second). Right now it takes about an hour to render one frame—happily, our online community of 450,000 participants enables us to do that in bulk. I call it the Electric Sheep’s Distributed Supercomputer.

Is there any piece of technology that inspired you to take the path you did?
The Apple II computer was what got me going. It was great and totally hackable. Anyone could program it, just hit reset and enter some code and go. The contrast with the iPad is pretty shocking. Yeah the form factor and touch screen are a dream, but the DRM (digital rights management) is a nightmare. Programming it is a continuous hassle.

What’s your favorite relic piece of technology from your childhood?
The Atari 2600.