Abstract: Michael Century

Encoding Motion in the Early Computer: Knowledge Transfers Between Studio and Laboratory

Transcoding hand-drawn gesture into computer-animated trajectories is among the fundamental operations of new media. How and where did this techno-aesthetic innovation take place? This paper reports on interviews with the scientists and artists responsible for this research, which occurred during the late 1960s in a collaborative setting spanning experimental animation practice and the earliest
research in interactive computing. In software studies, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory is well known as the site where Sutherland’s Sketchpad, an early interactive graphics system, was developed. Less well known is the work of R. M. Baecker, whose GENESYS system was developed at the same lab from 1967-69. Baecker chose to work on the enhancement problem in cultural expression in somewhat improbable setting of military-funded Lincoln Lab. He brought in artist collaborators from the independent animation community at Harvard, who served not only as test users but also contributed to the definition of the basic functionality of drawn motion trajectories. Inspired in part by Norman McLaren’s cameraless direct animation technique, 2-D hand- gesture was encoded in GENESYS and mapped onto the displacement of pictures. Baecker’s conceptualization of an artist-oriented animation system was inspired in part by McLaren’s definition of animation as “not the art of drawings that move, but the art of movements that are drawn”. In his straddling of the distant social worlds of experimental animation and interactive computing, Baecker may be considered a pioneer of digital culture. Picture-driven animation was diffused to the emerging interactive graphics community through a demonstration film, and promotion by Ted Nelson in Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a crossover text reaching countercultural readers. Nelson praised the elegance of the system for its simplicity, and as the best example to date of “how computers should be used in the human world”. In the early 1970s the system underwent a second iteration in California at Xerox PARC under Alan Kay’s sponsorship. There, the concept of hand-drawn motion trajectories was an early application within Kay’s influential pioneering research program into “dynamic personal media”. Re-written as a demonstration application in the object-oriented SmallTalk language, the second system permitted the animator to create and modify movies in real time. It was developed in a three-person team of artist, designer, and programmer, and was furthermore notable as among the earliest articulations of interaction style in terms of “conversationality” and “extensibility”.