James Powderly

The Creators Project: So, James, how do you define your job? It seems to defy categorization.

James Powderly:

I guess I’m a designer, somewhere between an artist and an engineer. I’ve had a bunch of jobs over the last ten years but they’ve always been focused on technology in some way. Over the last four years or so I’ve primarily worked on two projects; both of them are engineering projects involving technologies with creative applications.

It sounds like you have a dream gig, but where do you get the funds to realize these types of projects?

Evan Roth [another member of the EyeWriter team] and I began working together because we secured an art residency in New York City at a place called Eyebeam. They have a laboratory called Open Lab where you can come and work on your own projects on your own terms. It’s somewhere between mainstream contemporary art, new media art, and MIT. The only caveat is that everything you create must be part of the public domain. Evan and I were at Eyebeam for two years, and after we left we thought, “Wow, this is a good idea. I bet there are more people who are into this type of open-source work than just the seven or eight New Yorkers who scored a residency at Eyebeam.” So in our travels around we’d meet people in various cities who were into open-source work and say, “Hey do you want to maybe play along with us and join this fake group we have called Free Art and Technology [FAT] Lab?”

What do you mean by “fake”?

Well, we actually don’t have a physical lab in a specific location; we just have the website. And then there are members in 19 countries—Mexico, Sweden, Hong Kong, London, New York, and San Francisco. We’re a group of people all over the world who work on projects that interest us and that play to our research specialties. The only thing that we all have in common is that we all like to freely distribute our work and most of it’s pretty non-serious, pop-culture related stuff. We’ve been around for about two years and have an operating budget of about $250 per year, which covers the cost of the server.

How did someone with your skill set choose creating artistic technology instead of making weapons or equally menacing objects?

I think it’s safe to say that when you reach a certain amount of technical capability you can make whatever you envision. It’s a choice: whether or not you want to make things that are for the betterment of human beings or for the betterment of a sort of finite group of human beings.

Can you briefly explain how the EyeWriter works?

Basically there’s a camera pointed at the user’s eye. The user calibrates his or her head with respect to a screen. Then parameters like brightness and contrast must be adjusted in order to isolate the pupil. The camera tracks the motion of the user’s pupil as it moves around looking at the screen, and the drawing surface and the pupil are coordinated together. When the user focuses on a certain position it makes a point and then the user can drag the line in order to create a line and then create shapes. Then the user can create a number of letters, combine them all together to make a word, and then do things like add 3D effects, shading, drop shadows, change colors, and fill in the background. In the final mode of the software you can actually save your drawings and then upload them to our servers. Right now Tony Quan is the only EyeWriter but hopefully we’ll be able to get a few more and add stuff to the network. I think it gets more interesting with more users. The network effect is hard at work here.