“It’s exciting! It’s not just image, it’s devices doing things like robot controls or motor controls or controlling wheels or wind.”

Meet Greg Hermanovic, founder of Toronto tech company Derivative Inc. His software, TouchDesigner, fuses tech, art, music and even robotics together in new ways. TouchDesigner is revolutionizing the way we experience special events, concerts and architectural spaces, while at the same time setting artists free to create amazing experiential environments.

His previous tech products, used in the film and post production industry, have won two Academy Awards. Quiet and thoughtful, with an easy laugh and a great love of electronic music, I consider Greg Hermanovic to be the Geoffrey Hinton of computer graphics, and he has taken this industry into completely new realms. Greg’s products are the very best of Canadian tech.

TouchDesigner software founder Greg Hermanovic

I guess the first time we met was at that event you did with William Shatner.
Oh! That was William Shatner visiting C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures and talking about that Sci-Fi show LEXX. He was a founder of C.O.R.E in Toronto and it was a launch party.

Shatner was standing beside this big monitor with flames on the screen. He had no idea what it was, but basically it was all real time graphics generated on a Silicon Graphics computer. You could go up to it and move some sliders and the flames would change. That’s right, that’s where I met you.

I wound up there by getting an email from someone. The address was near my office and I thought there might be food, like a buffet table or something. I had just started TRIBE MAGAZINE and was spending all my money on printing costs and photography and was probably starving.

Also, I wanted to meet William Shatner! I am a huge Star Trek fan! There. Must. Be. A buffet. Table! So I sneaked in and hung out by the food. That was when you came up to me.  I thought I’d been busted for sure because I wasn’t invited, and was gorfing down carrot sticks or canapés or whatever they were. You came up and said, “You are AlexD, right?”
I had already seen you before. I probably knew you from your magazine and also from being around the afterhours party scene. I was your fan.

I was shocked! A fan! This is still my closest brush with stardom you know. That’s how we met and we’ve been friends ever since.
From then you turned me on to a couple of great Canadian house DJs like DJ Deko-ze who I took down to the states for interactive dance club at Siggraph and DJ Kevin Williams for another thing so that was great. You were always interested in the new and up and coming DJs and producers and helping promote them as well. Kind of matchmaking.

When we met, you were a founder of Side Effects Software. Before that you were with a company called OMNIBUS…
OMNIBUS Computer Graphics. This was when computer graphics were just starting to be used for commercials and effects for films, and a little bit on TV shows, for network IDs. That was the early years of commercial computer graphics.

OMNIBUS went out of business because they grew too fast so my partner at Side Effects, Kim Davidson and I, bought software and hardware from the bankruptcy sale and that’s how we started Side Effects Software. We just started rolling from that point on our own, selling our Prisms software in Japan and England at first and then the United States.

It grew and grew. We finally got into Hollywood via Digital Domain and Disney who were using our software for Apollo 13 and for that Schwarzenegger movie (True Lies). Year by year we penetrated Hollywood. We received an Academy Award for Prisms technology in the film industry. A few years later we won another Academy Award for Houdini technology in the film industry.

Then I decided I wanted to do stuff with all real time graphics. We did Interactive Dance Club at Siggraph. That was the first public, well funded event we did. We had six stations with interactive devices and music playing synchronized with sound effects, and visual effects and projections all in one space at once. So Interactive Dance Club was kind of the pre-cursor to me just jumping out from Side Effects.

I started Derivative, Kim Davidson continued to run Side Effects more for the film and post production industry, and I went more in the direction of real time graphics, hooked in with music, electronic music especially. That brought us into projects like the Amon Tobin ISAM tour. Amon Tobin had this big sculpture onstage projection mapped with totally bizarre projections – an optical illusion with him playing music inside with the visuals being controlled from the outside.

This was the round ball thing, the Shadowsphere, right?
No, this was a big sculpture thing onstage. The round ball thing was DJ Shadow, a smaller thing. Around the same year, Richie Hawtin as Plastikman did Plastikman 2010 which was kind of like a circular cage around him that premiered at Time Warp in Germany and also at Mutek in Montreal and toured around quite a bit. It was Rich in a cage with all the music & videos generating in a one man show. He wanted to set the system up so that he could control the visuals as much as he was performing the sound, which was totally revolutionary at the time – usually the visual part was just someone running a playback thing or something that was made by someone else.

Let’s go back a bit. Tell me a bit about the Prisms and Houdini software that Side Effects produced.
It helped build 3D geometrical objects that were kind of warping and deforming characters, particle systems, particle effects, which led to smoke coming off the side of the Apollo 13 rocket, for example. So it was used mostly for special effects that were kind of atmospheric or environmental. That was its bread and butter.

Houdini was the next generation. We decided t completely re-write Prisms as Houdini in the new language C++ and we had some new ideas of how the user interface should look and we wanted to re-engineer a lot of parts of it so that became next gen.

So this was software that you could work to build 3D models and texture and move them around, but not in real time?
There was a bit of real-timeness to it but certainly not the rendering of it which took 20 minutes a frame. Then graphics cards got really fast.

I remember you did special effects at a couple of our TRIBE MAGAZINE after hours parties back in the 90’s. At one I remember you brought in this huge SGI computer on wheels – this giant black box with blinking lights, and you also 3 or 4 animators working it. Wasn’t that a first attempt at live real time special effects?
That was with our Prisms product, and that computer was a $250,000 Silicon Graphics Onyx computer I managed to borrow for a “trade show”, but was actually for the TRIBE party. Three people carried it up the stairs with me to the second floor of the A-Space Gallery on Bathurst Street. I forgot the Scottish DJ you had playing, but there were nice big white walls, perfect, and I was just throwing stuff up that was all real time, trying stuff out. It was very much improvised as well, but with some pre-made material. It was very patterny and charactery and goofy. I had a lot of fun.

The thing I liked about that too was that nobody expected anything. It was a surprise. It was kind of a bonus to the party. That happened at a couple of subsequent TRIBE parties. Like the one near the tracks on Atlantic Avenue…

Before Liberty Village was a subdivision.
Yes, down there. At that time TRIBE parties were kind of my playground for doing visuals at events for music that I really liked so that was a key thing. So many people right now who use TouchDesigner are big freaks of electronic music so we kind of gravitate toward each other, in many countries.

The idea of image is just exploding.

Is there a relationship between electronic music and visual tech do you think?
Huge. There’s a huge relationship because the user interfaces and the way people make electronic music is similar to the way people make TouchDesigner visuals. It’s just the same kind of mentality of piecing this together like the synthesizer and getting picture out and attaching knobs to it to make more image come out, and sometimes tying the sound to the visuals or the visuals to the sound. Also, the technology is similar. It’s computers it’s not guitars – it’s computers and wires. There is a common base there, and just the spirit of creating new stuff in completely uncharted territory is also a common element.

Now it extends to not only images on screens or projections on walls, but now the images are going everywhere. I am standing in front of a grid of 100x100x100 LEDs in that cube over there and that is another display device. Images are not just on LED strips, they can be on lasers as well.

As an extreme example of TouchDesigner, another guy has this long pool. Ink and various chemicals is injected with jets into the pool using some algorithms and mixing chemicals and letting them spread kind of like the liquid light shows of the past. Again, this whole long vat of color is yet another display device. It’s not pixels; it’s liquids with color in it. The idea of image is just exploding.

TouchDesigner software color blocks

So the TouchDesigner software is allowing control over all these things as well?
It is exciting. It’s not just image, it’s devices doing things like robot controls or motor controls or controlling wheels or wind. Reacting to sound, producing sound, the imaging part of it and the whole interoperability between devices. Devices that measure things in the environment, and devices that control things in the environment – motors that move panels closer or farther or drop things from the ceiling – drop objects and pull them back up again. That’s also the domain of TouchDesigner now.

Because TouchDesigner is so broad now, what do you call it?
It’s an art composition tool, an art authoring tool. Our main catch-all description is “Visual Thinking”.

You have invented this whole new category of product.
There are a few companies around the world that are in the same domain, and we all kind of admire what each other does, but we are just following the art instinct about what to support next and what projects we are going to help our users achieve next.

Everything is very driven by our customers and users and they are everywhere. They are in Japan. Russia, they are in Europe, they are in Mexico which is where we are heading next week to do training. They are in the United States. Every country has its own design aesthetic, so there is a huge geographic and cultural influence to TouchDesigner.

Technology is pushing forward in many directions. It’s no longer about computer graphics. It’s multifaceted, multi-tech, multi-device, multi-sensory in its truest sense.

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