The RGBDToolkit Effect: Kinect Open Source Post-CGI Is the New Camera and Everybody Wants It

June 12, 2013 | Marina Galperina

“We’ve had a lot of requests for rap videos,” photographer Alexander Porter says. “I just shot one yesterday.” In a basement Bushwick art studio, by the stacks of DSLRs and Kinect sensor bits, creative coder James George shows me how the RGBDToolkit works, again.

Since 2011, George and Porter’s innovative toolkit has been ricocheting through the New York art-tech community. It’s just code. Specifically, it’s programming code and a set instructions on hacking a digital camera with a common Microsoft depth-censor used for console-free gaming. This produces a very specific, trippy digital glitch effect. It’s open source — provided free to for public creative use — and now, it’s popping up in mainstream music videos.

Liars tapped the grid aesthetic “Exact Color of Doubt” music video. Stereogum chirped all over the minimal effort: “We know” the band “makes some pretty cool music videos.” Brooklyn’s Unstoppable Death Machines used the toolkit too, but they mixed it up nice with sparks and glitches, and gave due kudos! As I flail my arms at imaginary Liars, the artists chuckle. “Music videos are always a place for experimentation. That’s wonderful. We like that it happens,” George says.

He assures me using the toolkit is easy, if you know what you’re doing. “The Kinect can tell the distances of surfaces in front of it. It’s a sensible way for computer to look at a person and understand their movements.” The Kinect on DSLR-merging RBDGToolkit runs on openFrameworks, a C++ creative code platform like Processing. Connecting depth data and video creates an adjustable hybrid: “It’s a 3D recording at thirty frames per second made up of polygons and points.”

Editing the footage is similar to editing 2D, with an added ability to travel through the x, y and z axes of a virtual perspective, changing “camera angles” and generating beautiful glitches. It is so much more than a recording or rendering. It’s a full, expressive capture. Essentially, a reverse hologram.

Two years ago, the first version of the RGBDToolkit was prototyped during George’s Carnegie Melon residency. When George and Alex met documentarian Jonathan Minard, he’d recently filmed the herders of Zuun Taiga in Mongolia. George and Minard used the toolkit to shoot their experimental documentary on new media and creative coding. Now in post production, the non-linear CLOUDS doc is itself an interactive art work.

They’re moving forward, but first, Porter and George celebrated the story so far with “RESOLVE,” a pop-up exhibition in Williamsburg. Save for the series of toolkit user-created Home Movies from the Future pulsating from a tiny projector — including the first ever Kinect-based porn — all the works in “RESOLVE” were made by the toolkit inventors: The hypnotic experimental film, the chromogenic subway surveillance prints and Wake Me, the “cryogenic photobooth.”

Come up to Wake Me and a camera flash goes off. Instantly, your frozen pixelated 3D likeness pops onto the screen. Before you have a moment to “woah,” it launches off, ceremonially, into a repository of previous 3D portraits. There they float in a clump, bumping gently, jittering and, occasionally, crashing off. Wake Me was developed during a 48-hour #GodMode Art Hack Day in Brooklyn’s 319 Scholes. Behind the attraction element, there’s a melancholy techno-spiritual philosophy: “Amounting to a pile of incomplete shells, the promise of preservation for a digital revival in a brighter future inevitably fails.”

Maybe you can’t quite fully transport into the future yet, but it is watching you. “You know that Bruce Sterling quote about cameras from the future, completely ubiquitous in capturing all photons, from all angles, at all times?” James explains, “Photography becomes entirely a retroactive process. There is no need for the camera device. Taking a photograph is making a search query: What did the back of my head look like ten years ago? How does Dubai look right now, from the top of this skyscraper?”

Is it photography or data visualisation? Is this an image of code or coding of an image? Working out of their Bushwick studio, James, Porter and Minard’s independent and overlaping creative fields, tools and projects merge, subvert and separate. Sometimes, when a particularly fancy adapter of the toolkit needs customization, they call in the specialists. This helps with funding of the project. Funding helps with further development. Back in the tech lair, to the whoosh of a lonely fan, we’re watching the rapper on the screen. His hand gesture devotionally, then dissolves into bits.

It’s fun to talk to these guys, to tangent off, to learn, to daydream. By now, I’m over clapping for tech parlor tricks. When the “camera” swoops into rendered scene, when it goes through the moving subject, bursts through his wire frame, then circles around and shows you what Porter and George call “Inside Face” — concave features smiling out of a live, hollow cross section — my own face tingles. Porter says, “My hope is that instead of wondering ‘How’d they do that?’ or ‘Where’s the camera?’ you’re trying to sense, ‘Where am I?'”

Wherever it is, it’s all points, lines and surfaces. And then there’s water.

For their latest video The Drowning of Echo, George and Porter worked with the dancer Alice Gosti. It’s part esoteric tech demo, part performance, part video art — an interpretation of The Transformation of Echo and The Story of Narcissus storylines from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The video plays off Marshall McLuhan’s book “Understanding Media” and Narcissus as his metaphor for technological extensions of the self. It’s a girl in the water. It’s also our relationship with devices and how they reflect, mesmerize and ultimately numb us to our own image.

“So much tech is, essentially, science fan fiction and self-fulfilling prophecies,” George says. Someone thinks of a future reality and the community, connected through projects like these, gets into it. They try, fail, adapt, compete, fight, collaborate and share. They evolve. “That’s the idea behind open source — you release something, and maybe it’s not complete, but you create a conversation around that product or process. Everybody participates.”

Midnight Juggernauts’ “Memorium” is one of George and Porter’s favorite adaptations, traces the evolution of CGI, credits the RGBDToolkit and places it into the now. They like it: It’s “tool-centric.”

This is tool culture.

“When you make a new tool you’re not just creating a way to make new projects,” George says. “You’re creating a new way of thinking.”

They’re not alone, clearly. On the internet, in the galleries and out there in general, there are many artists and developers on parallel journeys and the project has attracted some interesting people. Some are just a little bit weird.

“‘Weird’ is a normalizing source between things that are totally unexperienced and normal,” Porter explains. George adds, “The people that we end up encountering who are so wonderful are people who tend to be drawn to things that look a bit strange, things that suggest possibilities.”



For more about the RGBDToolkit, read ANIMAL’s recent interview with artist Alejandro Gomez-Arias and the world’s first Kinect porn.

(Art images Courtesy of James George and Alexander Porter. Photo of George and Porter: ANIMALNewYork. Contact @obviousjim and @alexicon3000 for help with your RGBDToolkit project.)