Necessary Distractions: Three Years of Tech Art

A girl with her arm around a black octopus cut out wearing paper plate headphones.

Long ago in the early 2000s when I was helping run the boutique (read: small and bad at sales) web consultancy I cofounded, we had a contract web developer named David. David worked on Drupal apps for us, and at the time the most notable thing about him to me, aside from the fact that apparently he’d infected one of my other co-founders girlfriends with chickenpox back in elementary school, is that David wanted to build dancing robots.

PHP community organizing apps (this was the era of CivicSpace) and dancing robots aren’t a super common crossover. At the time I didn’t really see how you could go from one to the other. When there’s so much web stuff to learn and new technologies constantly appear, it can feel like something like robotic art is just a distraction. I remember feeling that way when David and our office manager organized Austin’s first Maker Faire. I couldn’t really see how all this work could lead to selling any PHP or Rails web projects.

David didn’t see it that way. He did web development, but he also worked on his robots. I’m sure he passed up a lot of opportunities to make easy web dev money at a standard 9 to 5 job, but that wasn’t what he wanted. Eventually, with an amazing amount of talent and persistence, he ended up at the MIT Media Lab, where he got to make dancing robots. Fast forward to today, and many years later, he’s the Director of Technology and Digital Strategy at the MIT Museum. He kinda gets to do both. He also has a really great newsletter you should subscribe to.

David Nunez
David and his robotic marionette, Austin Maker Faire 2007

Dancing robots was never my dream. I have a big weak spot for systems that run and grow and evolve by themselves, like Conway’s Game of Life, and I also really like the idea of personal robots that you can develop a connection to, like Kuri, but the ramifications of a VC funded company developing and owning a member of your family are pretty dire. But for most of my time in tech I’ve stayed in my lane, which has been back end web development, hosting, and more recently data. I may have read an Arduino tutorial or watched a projection mapping video but I didn’t really commit myself to anything. At least, until dadageek.

In 2016 some organizers of the Austin Interactive Art meetup got together to create a school for creative coding called dadageek. They were 7-ish week classes, one class a week, around a specific tech art topic. I can’t remember how it caught my eye, but one of the three debut classes was called Create Generative Sculptures with Everyday Objects Using Processing. Finally, here was a structured, instructor-led class with a fixed start and end. Something I could commit to, with people who would be disappointed if I didn’t show up. It was outside of my lane, but safely.

I went a bit off the rails with that class. Jerome Martinez, who taught it, wanted to make it useful for all skill levels, so he started with the basics of algorithms, but at the end of the class, I’d made a game. It’s called Attackle of the Grackles, and your goal is to lead a flock of grackles around the screen to pick up tacos while you avoid getting them run over by a taco truck.

You can probably play it in your browser (warning: music). For the exhibition, which dadageek has after every set of classes, we set it up on an Android touchscreen computer and let people play it.

I also made a processing sketch of a cat in a sunbeam, and an interesting undulating lines sketch, both of which you can see in the interview video around 1:29 in.

I didn’t necessarily learn a ton about coding from the processing class, but I broke out of my lane. I made pretty things for the sake of them being pretty. I built my first visual game, and people played it.

The next spring I talked Irma into taking the classes with me. We booked our babysitter for extra hours, and signed up for not one, but two classes: Intro to Analog Audio Electronics by Mickey Delp of Delptronics and Intro to Arduino for Artists by John-Mike Reed of Bleep Labs.

In the 7 weeks of Intro to Analog Audio Electronics we learned the basics of soldering, capacitors, resistors, oscillators, power and ground, pitch. For our final project I built a seven note polyphonic analog synthesizer with a variable tempo drum machine, and Irma built a multi-oscillator buzz generator.

For Intro to Arduino for Artists we learned about making sound generators in Arduino, writing interactive code, controlling LEDs, and reading data from input sources. Irma made a beautiful ambient noise generator and LED light object. I went off the rails again, and made another game.

It’s kind of like a space war or missile command game, things drop from the top and you have to move the knob back and forth and press the fire button to shoot them. There’s a soundtrack that goes with it, and sound effects, I think. The trick may be to hold down the fire button and just sweep the knob back and forth. But it’s a physical object, and it’s a game, and all you need to play it is a USB power source, and I learned how to make it and made it in 7 weeks, and that’s kind of incredible.

In the spring of 2018 we were back, taking Matt Steinke’s Intro to Robotic Art class. The framework of that class is using a Digital Audio Workstation like Ableton to pass MIDI commands to an Arduino that’s connected to servos, motors, and solenoids, thus making an object move in controllable, scriptable ways.

For this project Irma made a gorgeous cherry tree in a metal cage, with LEDs, fans that blew the petals around, and birds that moved their heads. You can see it at 42 seconds into the video below.

Here’s a closer look at Irma’s project. She later ported the control script to Python so that it could respond to the beat in any music, took it to Baltimore, and showed it off at a conference for work.

And after all that, in the end, for my robotic art project… I made a dancing robot. Well, a dancing robotic octopus DJ. Behold, the Triptopus.

The Triptopus has 6 servos, a solenoid, 3 motors, and 2 LEDs. And an artistically untalented web development girl made it, by finding a way to get out of her lane.

To put a bow on this story, several months after I built Triptopus a friend of mine (who I’d told about my robotic art project, and whose girlfriend-now-wife had been the one to get chickenpox) pinged me about helping a startup he was working with. They needed someone to create a system to deliver precisely timed auditory stimulation during sleep in response to EEG data, for the purpose of improving memory.

There was a low cost open source Arduino EEG board we could use for the EEG bit. They needed someone to integrate that board into a physical device, write a user interface and control application for it, figure out how to play the sounds at precise times, and package it all together. It sounded like fun, and after all those dadageek classes, I wasn’t as terrified as I probably should have been.

I got my day job boss’s boss’s blessing and started working on it. After a lot of trial and error, I’m happy to say it works. The hardware and software I created using the same Arduino boards and coding approach as my robotic art project (with some wonderfully smart python from an actual, you know, brain scientist) actually seems to make people remember things better.

So, if I had any advice, I’d say find ways to get out of your lane. Find good distractions. Find smart, kind, interesting people who are willing to teach you what they know, pay them for it, and see what happens.

Thoughts on Digitally Native Artisanal Artifacts

Tucked away in a corner of a bustling storage depot in the halo of the San Francisco bay area is a metal shipping container.  Nestled inside that container, surrounded by the furnishings and bric-a-brac of a contemporary urban life, is a small, silver figure.  It is the only one of its kind in the world.  It is the result of a nearly 20 year design process, distilled through three minds from a short collection of descriptive words.  It is also the future.

A Little Backstory

It’s good to have friends who understand you.  I like to try things.  I like to pick up new technologies and roll them around, get a feel for their heft and texture.  This often involves doing a project, but these projects can sometimes be a little weird.  Finding good natured co-conspirators really helps.

Matt & Jeff Party Hearty

For the last few years, Matt Sanders has been my target guinea pig.  Matt is perfect, because we’ve diverged paths enough he doesn’t know everything I’m up to.  However, we spent years in the trenches together, so I know him pretty well.  If we saw each other all the time there might be an obligation tied to the things I come up with, and that would make it weird.  Matt also happens to enjoy the artistic and technological, so I know the fundamental concept of the attempt will be appreciated.

In 2010, I got Matt a rap song for his birthday.  DJ Brixx, a friend I met through an electronics comparison shopping project wrote and recorded it.  Brixx lives in the Philippines, and once professed a desire to eat at the Cracker Barrel.  He’s a crazy guy.  You meet crazy people by trying to do crazy things and finding the people who are willing to go along for the ride.


The rap song set a high bar, but sometime in 2011 I was driving up Loop 1 with Irma, and realized that I could top it by making the virtual real.  I could create a small figure of one of his RPG characters.  Years ago, starting in 1994, Matt and I spent a lot of time together in an Internet-based text-based role playing game called Ghostwheel.  I’ve talked about it a couple of times before.  In Ghostwheel you describe yourself, what your character looks like, and what it’s carrying.  I had been looking into creating 3D models of the Dust Bunnies characters, and knew that there were freelance 3D modelers out there who were experienced at character design.  Shapeways let you print things in metals, including a very nice sterling silver.  So the pieces were there, I just needed to get it done.


SketchI ended up working with a 3D modeler named Bhaskar Rac.  He had worked at a video games studio, and had a good feel for character design.  We did a contract through oDesk, which handles payment and taxes and whatnot.  I sent Bhaskar Matt’s character’s description, some photos of him for general reference, and some sample pictures of the things he had on his person.

After a few days of discussions about Fallout and thematic inspiration, Bhaskar sent back this sketch.  A few days after that he followed up with a draft 3D model.  I thought it was awesome, so we tweaked a few small details, and I uploaded it to Shapeways New York manufacturing facility.

Shapeways prints their sterling silver models in a three step process.  First they print the model in wax using a high resolution 3D printer.  Then they submerge the wax model in liquid plaster to make a mold.  The wax is melted out and molten silver is poured in, resulting in the final piece.  It produces a very high level detail, and is a process often used for jewelry.  It also works really well for anything small you intend to last for a long, long time.

A few weeks later, this appeared in the mail:

MattFig 1 MattFig 2 MattFig 3


The little 2 inch high figure is now in transit with the rest of Matt’s stuff as he moves to San Francisco.  The digital model exists, but no other physical traces grace the earth.  There is only one.  Unless Bhaskar sketched out something on paper, it’s the only physical manifestation of this entire project.  That’s a pretty weird thing.

If Matt were to somehow lose the figure, if someone broke into his house or if there was a fire, or someone unleashed a bio-engineered virus that only ate silver, we could print another one.  As part of the “gift” I sent him the 3D file, so if he wanted he could populate his house with tiny Matt figures in every size and color.  He could open source it, upload it to Shapeways and let anyone print a tiny Matt figure for their Monopoly set.  It’s a present that comes with it’s own infinite digital reconstruction blueprint.

But what if someone stole the digital one?  What if it leaked out, and people liked it so much they started printing their own?  How would that make Matt feel?  How would it make me feel?  Does he have “the original” even though there is no original?  Is it a “first” like a blog comment?  Is there still something unique about the one that arrived in his house packed in a tiny little box for his birthday in 2011?  I think so, but it lives in a weird space.


I think this kind of gift, the present deeply rooted in the past, in a shared history and experience, but interpreted by skilled artisans into something new, is going to be the new normal.  While hiring artists and 3D modelers is challenging now, there’s nothing stopping someone from creating Photoshop or Maya as a service.  Perhaps Shapeways will even evolve in that direction.  Supply the talent, ship the product.

We’re surrounded by mass market objects.  Books, movies, furniture, even sometimes what we consider to be art.  We collect it and we arrange it, but it isn’t truly unique.  The hand blown glasses at Ikea say they’re made by hand and each is unique, but you’re buying them from Ikea, so the really weird ones probably get tossed in the recycling heap.  Sometimes we may shop at craft fairs, but even crafters will reproduce an item if it sells.  It’s hard to create things from scratch, and producing one-offs is expensive in a traditional model.

But now that the means of production are so cheap, and the training to use them is largely free and open, we can truly have unique things without spending a lot of money.  We can create home movies that are beautiful, we can hire artists to create beautiful things just for us or the ones we care about.

It’s possible we’re just setting ourselves up for a backlash.  The figure I made for Matt isn’t a Warhol, and while we both get it and enjoy it, I’m sure some would argue that we’d be better off with a good reproduction of something truly important instead of a meta-reference.  But Warhols are meta-references, so maybe we’re just becoming hyper-personal with them.  In the end that’s what we get to weigh.  Is the quality of the work more important, or the personal connection you have to it?

VallisMOO: A Game Designer Is You!

The world is a scarred shell of wind and sand and heat.  Whoever had their finger on the button finally pressed it.  There’s only one safe place left, a tiny, sheltered valley between two giant mountains.  To the south is the ocean, to the north, the wasteland.  A magical gate keeps the monsters out, and keeps the valley safe.  We live well here, in our little sea side town or deep in the forest.  We roam the grassy plains, dotted with bald hills.  We hunt, and forage, and build.  Sometimes we fight, because what’s worth fighting for more than the last good place on Earth?

YOU & Me

A couple of days ago I read a review of Austin Grossman‘s new book, YOU, by Cory Doctorow, and decided to buy a copy.  Austin’s a game designer, and he’s worked on System Shock, Clive Barker’s Undying, Deus Ex, and Dishonored.  He’s now an author, with his first book SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE, and now YOU.  YOU is a book about a directionless 27 year old who gets a job at a game company started by some of his high school friends.  While designing a new role playing game, he delves into the mystery of what happened to his friends and their dream of the ultimate game.  A game where you could be and do anything, and the story would unfold before you naturally.

I haven’t finished YOU, but it’s been bringing up all kinds of memories.  I got my first internet account in early 1994, dialing up through Real/Time Communications in Austin.  R/T hosted a game, a text-based Zork-ish virtual world game called Ghostwheel, or GhostMOO.  I’ve talked about GhostMOO before in my Pocket Worlds post, but I had forgotten an interesting chunk of GhostMOO history, and my own stab at multiplayer game design.  My own dream of the Ultimate Game.


In 1997 GhostMOO was on the decline.  We’d had a big rush of users in 1995, but many of them had graduated from college, and user numbers were down.  The two main drivers of the game, Quinn (lead programmer) and Razorhawk (content creator) were busy with other projects, and without strong direction, GhostMOO was stagnating.

scribbleA couple of GhostMOO programmers, including Matt Sanders (who I’d go on to start Polycot and then join HP Cloud with) and I decided we’d start a spin off.  Quinn had been gracious enough to release the core of the game, the bits and pieces that made up combat and non-player characters and monsters, out into the open as the GhostCore, so we had a good place to start.

We were thinking of creating a Ghost^2 or Ghostwheel 2.0, if you will.  Similar core concepts, but different execution.  Ghostwheel was all over the place thematically, we had monsters cribbed from Princess Bride, Alien, a whole community of Dragons straight out of Pern, a quaint japanese island, basically whatever a programmer was really into, they built.  Even the name was cribbed from Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.  In retrospect what we had was a mashup, we were just ahead of our time.  Ghost^2 was an attempt to wipe the slate clean, to start with a core concept and theme that would be internally consistent.

Like all groups starting with a blank sheet of paper, we wanted to create the Ultimate Game, and we had the audacity to think that we could create a better game than the ones that had come before.  We wanted to create a game where if you wanted to play a blacksmith, you should be able to do that all day, role play with other people, and generally succeed and feel progress.  If you wanted to fight monsters, great, but that wasn’t the only path.  Years later the first Star Wars Galaxies game would do this in MMORPG form, only to be neutered and turned into more of a combat grind in an attempt to compete with WoW.

Terrain Zones

One of the really interesting things that Quinn built at GhostMOO was the Terrain Room.  GhostMOO was a MOO, a text based game, kind of like a multi-player Zork.  In a game like this as you walk around you’re presented with room descriptions, which include the objects in the room (furniture, people, monsters, etc) and the available exits.  Like so:

The R/T Round Room
Eight walls for each point of the compass, each with an open doorway.  The
 floor is tiled with checkered perma-linoleum; little matching octagons.

        NW        Lounge       NE
      Austin        |       Hot Tub             UP
             \      |     /                     Helipad-
               \        /                         Austin
    W              YOU             E              Jizo Island
 Library -----     ARE   ----- Infirmary          Ghostwheel Plain
               /   |    \                       DOWN
        SW   /     |      \    SE               Ground floor-
     Obsidian               Greenroom             Exit to Wasteland    
                   S                               Guest Chamber
            PX/General Store
The center desk is empty of all personnel.  Someone must be on an extended
 coffee break.  An electronic sign-in pad is bolted to the desk.  A monitor is
 bolted into the desk.  Nobody's sitting on the floor.  Alongside the east
 wall is a queer little potted tree, a tallish leafy husk with a, uh, snout?
 Bulletin board                                             
Obvious exits include down (d, trapdoor) and Up (Helipad, u).

Each of these rooms is dug by a programmer from an existing room, like mining through the digital aether.  That new room then has an exit back to the room you were in before.  (Here’s a map of the main house and grounds of LambdaMOO, for comparison.)  That style of design makes for very detailed, interesting areas, but the overall area tends to be small, because every room needs to be described individually.

Quinn created something called a Terrain Room, which lived inside a Terrain Zone.  In a Terrain Zone you insert a little ASCII map, something like this:

        @qedit me.tmp
        # ############
        #    # #     #
        #          # #
        ############ #

This map defines what kind of rooms there are and what the layout is.  In this case the pound signs (#) may be walls, while the tildes (~) may be rivers, and the blank spaces grassy fields.  With this lovely hack Quinn transformed the Zork style MOO into a player-perspective Rogue-like.

The cool feature of the Terrain Zone is that it only creates the rooms if they need to exist.  In a MOO everything takes up memory space, and back in the mid 90’s memory wasn’t as plentiful as it is now.  If you’re standing in a terrain room, the terrain zone can look at the rooms around you on the map, and tell you what’s there.  “To the north, east and west are open fields.  To the south is a stone wall.”  Those rooms don’t actually exist.  Once you decide to walk north, the Terrain Zone creates that room, moves you into it, and destroys the room you were standing in before (unless you dropped something, or there’s some other reason for the room to still exist).

By operating like this you could create huge areas without actually digging and describing every room yourself, and the memory consumption would be a lot smaller.  Your monsters and other non-player characters could also know about their “home” terrain type, so they wouldn’t stray from the grass or river.  You could also let the player “travel north” and they would keep walking through rooms until they hit a room that was different than the type they were already in, or contained something unique.

In Ghost^2, we decided to use a Terrain Zone for our world, since it let us create an overall map that had consistent distances and spacing.  I sketched the map out on a sheet of paper (above), and then started drawing it in a paint program on my Mac (below).  I had a program that let me convert graphical images into ASCII art, so I was able to go from a map directly into the MOO.  This is the last version of the Ghost^2 map, created in October of 1998:


The map is 1,000 pixels by 1,000 pixels, so our game would would be 1,000 rooms by 1,000 rooms.  In the orange spots where there were towns we could dig out special rooms for houses and buildings, we could dig out special dungeons from the fields or forests.  In this map light green is grassland, dark green is forest, gray-green is hills, blue is water, yellow is roads, and grey is rocky terrain.  The outlines around large sections are edge types, like the edge of a forest, a beach or the base of a hill.

It was a really cool concept, and thinking about it still gets me excited.  The idea of adventuring in that world, exploring the bustling cities, verdant fields, dark forests and dimly lit caves sounds like a lot of fun.


Game design isn’t easy.  It’s easy to dream about, but it’s hard in practice.  I’m about 1/3rd of the way through YOU, and the main character’s starting to realize that he has to enumerate every kind of object in the world, in every state it has.  We reached a similar place with Ghost^2, which eventually became VallisMOO when interest waned among the other developers.  We decided not to create a sister-MOO to Ghostwheel and I kept working on my own, and that MOO became VallisMOO.

I appreciate the stamina exhibited by the Adams brothers, the team behind Dwarf Fortress.  They’ve been working on that thing for years, but that level of dedication is really hard to maintain.  I got to a place with VallisMOO where I needed to begin populating the combat system with weapons.  I heard that Steve Jackson games was working on a Low-Tech book, due out “any day now”, and instead of forging ahead (ahem) and making do, I decided to wait till it came out, and use it for reference.  That was 1998.  GURPS Low-Tech finally shipped in 2002, and by then I was on to real paying projects and VallisMOO was only a memory.


I went digging through my project archive and found a directory full of VallisMOO code and to-do lists and graphics.  It even had some logs of conversations where I discussed the ideas for Ghost^2 with some friends, things I’d long forgotten.

I thought I’d share the design documents with the world, so I’ve uploaded them to github with a Creative Commons license.  There are files of character types, races, locations, maps and all kinds of crazy things.

If you thought this post was interesting, and enjoy 90’s era game design, you’ll probably really like Austin Grossman‘s YOU.  I finished it last night, and once I get a chance, I’ll write a more complete review.

Agents vs Operatives (aka Spy Break)

spybreaklogoBack in 2008 when I was a managing partner at Polycot, we had an idea for a Facebook game.  I’ve always loved the spy genre, and it didn’t seem well represented, so we spent a few months of idle time writing up specifications, prototyping screens and mapping out how the application would work.  After it became obvious we didn’t have the budget to develop or launch the game, we shelved the project.  In the spirit of sharing ideas, here’s a glimpse inside the first phase of a game project.

Back Story

Agents vs Operatives, or Spybreak as it might have been known if it had reached the light of day, was a Facebook game.  Our setup was that players had been recruited as either Agents (good guys) or Operatives (bad guys) by competing cold war era organizations:

GALAXY – Global Alliance Limiting Aggressive Xenophobic sYndicates


KOSMOS – Kommitte Over Sabotage and Mayhem, Overseas Services

Our design theme was inspired heavily by the early Bond films, the Flint films, Get Smart, and the fantastic game No One Lives Forever.

The Game Experience

UI Comp
User Interface Comp

The spy genre gives us a nice set of tools to make a game with.  There’s a spy (the player), bad guys and traps (obstacles), cool items (inventory), and exotic locations (setting).  I’d played a lot of Kingdom of Loathing, which has a similar set of elements, though KoL is an extremely silly parody of the fantasy genre.  We wanted AVO to be wry and funny, but not silly.  Like NOLF in theme, but KoL in experience, if you will.

When you’re developing a game you have to think about how people will play, and design a game to suit it.  Facebook games need to be playable in small chunks, though you may have a lot of time to burn, not everyone does.  We wanted a game you could play a mission or two of over your coffee break, and feel like you’d accomplished something.

We had three classes in the game: Muscle, Tech and Spook.  Tech characters would be able to crack security systems and take shortcuts while spooks would be able to use disguises or sweet talk their way around bad guys.  Muscle characters would just fight their way from one end to the other.

We decided on a mission setup where the player worked their way through a random arrangement of rooms (a dungeon) populated by randomly generated but thematically appropriate bad guys (monsters), trying to get to a goal, be it a safe with documents in it, a piece of stolen technology, or what have you (treasure).  We wanted to have at least a selection of classes available who would have different experiences, so we added the idea of optional routes that you could only get to if you had certain skills.  Here’s what we were shooting for with our random dungeon generator:

Test Dungeon Outline

When you started a mission you’d be dropped in a mission start area, like a square outside of a museum or a back alley behind a warehouse.  We had a selection of areas, in which we’d create some generic room types.  For instance the museum area would have a loading dock, an atrium, a long hallway, a display room, a break room, etc.  The game would put together a random arrangement of these areas when the mission was started, so each mission would feel a little different.  We also wanted some thematic variety, so we came up with the idea of having theme sets for areas.  For a museum you might have a cephalopod museum, a historic losers museum, a doll sized furniture museum, etc.  We’d differentiate these by substituting description phrases in the generic room descriptions, so the room might be:

You’re standing in yet another hallway. Marble columns arch from floor to ceiling evenly along the length of the hall. Security cameras sit high in the corners %instance_variable. The floors are spotless, shining in the glow of incandescent lamps set into small alcoves. A threadbare rug extends the length of the hall.

There is %roomlib_title here.

Assuming this was a Cephalopod Museum, into that we would substitute an instance variable like ‘above seashell sconces’ and the roomlib title would be ‘an angry-looking octopus’.

Those who have money do art, those who don’t have money do text.  Fortunately with layered graphics we figured we’d be able to create generic room backgrounds and then drop unique sprites on top of them as we had money to pay artists.

The rooms would be populated by thematically appropriate bad guys, and to proceed through the room you’d need to defeat or incapacitate them.  You’d get equipment for completing missions or helping out your friends, so you’d have leveled guns or grenades or disguises, if you were a spook.  Get through all the rooms and you successfully complete the mission.

Mission SelectionAs a Facebook game, you need to limit the amount of content and progression players can burn through in a sitting.  Otherwise, assuming your game is fun, they’ll burn through all your content in one sitting and then be done with it.  We planned on doing that by limiting the missions available to players.  We’d have low-value missions available regularly throughout the day that were only available for a set time (like the next 3 hours), and daily missions that were high value that were available all day.  You’d be able to help out your Facebook friends who were playing the game by sending them access to mid-value missions.

We also had the concept of multi-player missions, so the reward wouldn’t unlock unless all of the players who agreed for the mission completed it within the set time.  Since we were allowing good guys and bad guys, you’d also be able to PvP with other players, though we didn’t prototype that too heavily.

Over time you’d level up, gaining the ability to go on multi-player missions, go on missions in cities other than your home city.  We’d differentiate cities with unique areas and unique variables, so Paris might have a Stinky Cheese museum and cathedrals while Los Angeles might have a Plastic Surgery Parts warehouse and movie sets.

A Tragic Fate

In the end we didn’t get beyond a simple web demonstration without enemies that Ethan built in rails.  As a consulting shop we’d have had to finance it with profits from other projects, and since everyone had bills to pay, those profits never stayed around for long.  Not having a graphic designer on staff also meant we’d have to pay other folks to do a lot of work, which became a major stumbling block.  We probably could have repurposed this idea for an iPhone game, but by the time that platform was ripe we had other ideas to try.

I’ve uploaded a bunch of design documents to github, if you’d like to check out more.  Maybe someone will take the idea and run with it.  It’s still a game I want to play.

The Archive Project

Ideas are funny things.  Some are fleeting: You’ll be reading your twitter stream, one will pop into your head, and two tweets further it’s gone.  Sometimes you can backtrack, reconstruct your experience and get it back.  Sometimes it’s gone forever.  Other ideas stick with you.  They nestle into your brain and make a home for themselves, popping up when you read something tangentially related, or when you’re staring at the blank sheet of a new project.

For me, The Archive is that idea.


As a kid I really loved anecdotal stories.  One of my favorites were a series of sermons told in the form of the life story of a missionary named Otto Koning, relating the lessons he learned working with a tribe in New Guinea.  Otto is a masterful storyteller, and I probably listened to the tapes dozens of times.  Hearing him describe his experiences almost made you feel like you were there, and gave a really unique insight into a time and place that would have otherwise been undocumented.

Chad and the San Marcos dialup stack (circa early 1996).

When I started working my first internet job at a small ISP in San Marcos, Texas in 1995, I began to spend a lot of time riding shotgun on tech support house calls with Chad Neff.  By now Chad has probably fixed half of the computers in San Marcos, but before he became the town’s resident Internet Guy, he had an entire career as an artist and printmaker.  You still see his work popping up on eBay, and his prints as set dressing on movies and TV shows, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Chad also did a stint in the Army, in signals intelligence, plus a bunch of years in the Mounted Park Patrol and Police Reserve.  Needless to say, Chad has a lot of stories.

When Chad wasn’t telling stories, we’d brainstorm the big idea that was going to make us internet millionaires (back then being a millionaire was an impressive thing). One of the ideas that we had, probably on the way to one of San Marcos’s funeral homes (Chad designed the awning over the entrance to one of them), was the Permanent Internet Memorial.  The internet has the unique ability, compared to traditional headstones, of actually telling you something about a person that’s longer than a few sentences.  We knew back then that storage and bandwidth were just going to get cheaper, so it seemed like a logical idea: Start a company designed to last forever, and charge a one-time fee to create a permanent memorial on the web.

Needless to say, the idea didn’t go any further than that ride, but the core concept of extended longevity on the internet, mashed up with the explosion in self publishing and data driven explorable sites eventually coalesced into the idea for The Archive Project.  These ideas solidified in early 2000, and this is the concept as I had it then:

The Idea

The Archive Project is a web database for personal stories, index-able by place, theme, time, person and object.  The building block of The Archive is the story, a personal anecdote about something that happened to you.  Once you’ve created a story, you tell the system where it happened, when it happened, and you can tag other people in it.

There’s a great story behind these shoes, but the flickr page only tells a little bit of it.

Users would be able to tag people in stories that may or may not be users.  Eventually if a user signed up, they could claim all those people tags as themselves, assuming the original author validated it was really them.

I think I was designing this system before geocoders were as prevalent as they are now, because I actually requested and received a burned DVD copy of the USGS’s global gazetteer.  The idea was you’d be able to type a place name like Austin, Texas into the system and the site would be able to drop the story on a map, which you could then make precision modifications to.  With Open Street Map this is really easy, but at the time it was still something of an unknown.

When pinning a story in time, you’d be able to say broad things like The Early 50’s or Spring 1976, or burrow down to specific dates.  You’d be able to put together strands of memories into an overall story, like Our Year In Paris.

My goal was to create a site where people would be able to publish their life story, like the vanity autobiography publishers of yesteryear.  By wrapping the anecdotes that make up a life story in semantic data, you’d be able to surf through the system in what I hoped would be really interesting ways.  You’d be able to explore stories from people who lived in San Francisco in the 60s, or who migrated from the midwest to New York in the 70s, read about what it was like from an adult point of view when you were growing up.  You could read stories by people who travelled great distances when they were young, or from people who stayed in the same place their whole lives.  You’d be able to read stories about sewing machines in New York or stories about cars in Arizona.  You’d be able to find a narrative across all kinds of contexts.

Let’s record some stories.

Some stories would have associated media, photos or audio recordings or video.  It would be like a museum for the human race, the opportunities for interesting curation would be enormous.

For the authors, the people who contributed content to the site, they would know that The Archive existed solely to serve as a caretaker for their stories.  Like Wikipedia it wouldn’t be sold, and their kids and grandkids and great-grandkids could add new stories to theirs, and their contribution would be part of a permanent family history.

There’s even an opportunity to have a Real and Fictional versions of the Archive, where fans could assemble consolidated versions of their favorite stories or characters lives.  For instance, on December 18th, 2009 in Colorado, Jeff Winger had a fight with some fly dancers, and was rescued by his friends.

Imagine the mobile possibilities: You could be standing in a random location, open an Archive browser app, and read stories that happened there before.  There’s nothing stopping museums, or a place like Mount Vernon from creating stories from George Washington’s life.

The Archive Project never got beyond dreams and some rough architecture diagrams.  I knew what I wanted to build, but the scope was large and I knew it would be difficult to promote.  It would be way too easy to fail, and once you accepted your first story from a user, you would be honor bound to host the thing forever.

Present Tense

Things are a little different now.  It’s become possible to host vanity projects, even at a reasonable size, for not that much money.  Creating socially conscious organizations is easier than it was, and there’s more support.  Most importantly, though, over the last dozen years we’ve gotten really good at creating database centric social web sites without reinventing the wheel.  Personally, I learned a lot of lessons from building Specialized Bicycle Components social network, the Riders Club.  Specifically, features don’t matter if they aren’t easy to use, and in the end you’re really there to enable their use of the site, they’re not there to populate your dream.

Privacy was always a sticky wicket with the archive project.  It could be a gold mine for identity theft, mostly in enabling spear phishing social engineering, but these days the risk is less, I think, because people realize that so much of their lives are already available to people who want to know.  The reward from publishing your memories is greater than the risk of someone doing something bad with them.

Aaron Cope’s talk at the New Zealand National Digital Forum sparked some interesting thoughts about The Archive, since it’s essentially a catalog of memories.  The idea of assigning artisinal integers to each memory, and building the entire thing in a way that it can be human shardable (something I’m going to write a blog post about soon), makes a lot of sense.  Having the system be able to collate data from both a centrally hosted repository and a network of individual Archive sites that individuals could run themselves or for a group would be really powerful, and act as protection against the collapse of the central site.

I think you could prototype a version of The Archive pretty quickly these days, and I may spend part of early next year doing just that.  I think the idea is still valid, and if things like Storify have shown us anything, it’s that people crave narrative.


The Archive is one of those things I want to exist.  If Wikimedia had something like this already that wasn’t a wiki (I don’t think people should be able to edit others stories unless they have permission), I’d put this idea to bed.  But it hasn’t happened, and it needs to.

Interviewing my parents on video. Not everyone has this chance.

We have the technology to record and share our experiences.  We could hold on to our history, but we’re letting it slip through our fingers.  The best stories get passed on to the kids, and maybe to the grand kids, but a few generations out the person is just an entry on a family tree.  I’ve interviewed my parents on video about their lives, but I don’t have a place to put it, or best practices on how to turn it into something other people could learn from, so the project has stalled.  Individual communities have started story archiving projects, and there are Best Of or focused media collections like StoryCorps, but nobody’s taken this to the web, to make it easy for everyone.

So let’s make it happen.  If you’re interested in working on The Archive, if you have thoughts or ideas, or if you know of a project like it that already exists, drop me a line.