Seven Projects to Stretch Your Digital Wings: Part One

I love September. There’s a back-to-school crispness in the air that always gets me jazzed to learn something new, even though I’ve been out of school for 15 years. Maybe you feel it too. And with a long holiday weekend coming up, perhaps you’ve got a few hours free to experiment with a new tool or craft—something that will help you express a bit of your own creativity. The question is, where to begin?

Well, if you’re like me and you’ve got a weakness for gadgets, software, and Web tools, you may find something of interest in the following list of easy digital projects. This is just a smattering of the options popping up every day for people who want to use new media to explore the world around them and express and share their own ideas. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a creative type, I urge you to give these new tools a try. Everyone has something unique, valuable, and personal to say about their life experiences, and in many ways, the new digital technologies make it easier than ever to say it.

In this week’s column, I cover three projects in the areas of visual art and Web publishing; I’ll outline four more ideas involving different media next week. [Update 9/18/09: Actually, this turned into a three-part column. Be sure to check out part two and part three.] Some of these items involve technologies I haven’t written about before, and others are things I’ve introduced in past columns. Most of them require a bit of basic equipment, such as an Internet-connected computer, a digital camera, or smartphone—but the Web-based tools that I list are all free.

Pick one and have fun! I encourage you to post your results online and share a link in the comment section here. And if you have your own favorite tools for digital self-expression, let us know about them.

1. Make a Digital Painting with Brushes

There are plenty of powerful programs for creating computer art, like Adobe Photoshop Elements and Corel Painter. Creative professionals often put these programs to work using high-end gadgets like Wacom’s Intuos pen tablets and Cintiq pen displays. But using inexpensive software from the iTunes App Store, anybody with an iPhone or iPod Touch can try their hand, literally, at painting digitally.

My favorite iPhone painting app is Brushes, a $4.99 program created by independent developer Steve Sprang. It sprang to fame this summer when The New Yorker published a Brushes painting by New York artist Jorge Colombo on its cover. The program is extremely easy to use—you just point and draw with your finger—but its features, like a color picker, a transparency adjuster, zooming, layers, and undo buttons, make it surprisingly flexible.

I’m amazed by some of the art Brushes users have created: they’ve used the software to evoke styles ranging from hard-edged, Mondrian-style modernism to a misty softness that reminds me of Japanese scroll paintings. (You can see more than 7,000 Brushes paintings uploaded by more than 1,400 Flickr members here.) But the program is also great for plain old doodling.

And there’s an extremely cool feature that allows you to share not just your finished Brushes paintings, but animations documenting your work, brushstroke by brushstroke. You just log into the app’s built in Web server from your Mac’s browser, copy the special “.brushes” file, then open it using the free Brushes program for the Macintosh. Here’s a video showing how I made my first Brushes painting—it’s amateurish, obviously, but I had fun with it.

2. Start Lifestreaming with Friendfeed or Posterous

Blogging is so 2006. All the cool kids, like Steve Rubel of Edelman Digital, have moved on to lifestreaming. Definitions of lifestreaming vary, but I’d say it comes down to having a central online clearinghouse for everything you share and store online: writings, photos, videos, audio, documents, bookmarks, tweets, Facebook status updates, and the like. If you’re a creator, setting up a lifestream can be a great way to gather all your digital creations in one place, and to make sure that all of your online friends know what you’ve been producing.

At the moment, there are two approaches to lifestreaming that roughly mirror each other; my guess is that they’ll soon merge, but for now you need to use different tools to experience both types. The first type of lifestreaming tool, which I’ll call an aggregator, basically pulls things in from elsewhere. It automatically watches for the content you post to other online services, and gathers them into a central stream or feed. The second type, which I’ll call a broadcaster, ingests your content directly and then pushes it out to everywhere else.

Friendfeed, built by a group of former Google engineers who now work at Facebook, is the leading example of an aggregator. Once you’ve set up a free Friendfeed account and linked it to your other online accounts, it will suck in everything you publish to your favorite social media services, including your Tumblr or LiveJournal blog posts, your Flickr or Picasa photos, your Delicious or StumbleUpon bookmarks, your Facebook or Google Talk or Twitter status updates, your YouTube videos, and your Digg or Google Reader or Reddit news feeds. In other words, you never need to post anything directly to Friendfeed. Your Friendfeed personal page is just a convenient place for you and your friends to see all of your other online activities. (It can even track which movies you rent from Netflix, so be careful!)

Steve Rubel's Posterous BlogPosterous, the creation of former Apple programmer Sachin Agarwal, is the leading example of a broadcast lifestreaming service. When you send material to Posterous via e-mail, it gets added to your lifestream (e.g. and simultaneously auto-posted to the social media services of your choice, including Blogger, Facebook, Flickr, LiveJournal, Movable Type, Tumblr, Twitter, Typepad, WordPress, and Xanga. Every Posterous lifestream also has an associated RSS feed, which is useful, among other things, for podcasting: if your friends set up iTunes subscriptions, they’ll automatically get the MP3 files that you e-mail to Posterous.

Rubel, who tracks new-media trends for a large public relations firm, says he gave up blogging for lifestreaming because he was attracted to the simplicity and informality of Posterous, which he calls “something in between Twitter and a blog.” He also cites Posterous’s ability to handle multimedia content, which is impressive. I think a lot of other busy users of social media services will feel the same attraction—but Posterous is also great just for sharing the occasional photo or essay. (Your latest Brushes digital painting, for example.)

3. Document a Space with Photosynth

If you’re used to viewing your digital images in old-fashioned file folders on your computer, or on photo-sharing sites like Flickr or Photobucket, then you’re in for a shock with Photosynth. When Microsoft first rolled out the technology a year ago this week, I was so bowled over that I wrote a whole breathless column about it. As I explained then, Photosynth is like a cross between collage and virtual reality; it analyzes a large number of close-up photos of an object or a place and assembles them into a common 3-D environment, a kind of 3-D jigsaw puzzle that you can explore using the Web-based Photosynth viewer. If you’re familiar with the famous David Hockney photocollage Pearblossom Highway #2, you already have some idea of the effect Photosynth produces—except that in the Photosynth version of Hockney’s work, you’d be able to move into the space, rather than simply glancing around it.

Creating your own “synths” on Photosynth can be a fun way to stretch your photographic skills—and I guarantee that it will give you a totally new way to think about the things you photograph. Be warned: the “synther,” the program that actually uploads your photos to Photosynth, only runs on Windows PCs. (You can download that here.) But assuming you’ve got access to one of those, you can get started by picking a Photosynth-friendly subject. That could be an interior space like your living room or an art gallery, where you’re basically going to stand in the middle and take lots of photos looking in every direction; it could be an outdoor object such as a building, where you’re going to walk around it gradually, shooting pictures as you go; or it could be a small object like a sculpture or a vase, which you’re going to place on a table (or even a turntable) and shoot from every angle.

A sample synth in the Photosynth web viewerThere are a few keys to creating a photoset that can be assembled into a compelling synth. They’re detailed in Microsoft’s excellent Photosynth Photography Guide, but I’ll run through them here anyway: Use a wide-angle lens. Make sure that each feature (say, the door of a cathedral) appears in at least three photos. When panning across a scene with your camera, make sure that each photo overlaps the previous one by at least half. When moving around a 90-degree corner, take at least 9 photos—every 10 degrees or so. Limit yourself to about 300 photos; if you try uploading more than that, in my experience, the synther tends to crash. And avoid uniform or repetitive expanses like blue sky, white walls, or the glass grids of skyscrapers—they don’t have enough detail for Photosynth to match adjacent photos. (As the Photosynth team puts it, Photosynth loves Venice, and it hates the Seattle Public Library.)

Photosynth isn’t a fully supported Microsoft product, and it’s not clear how it will evolve as a technology. There’s talk at Microsoft about integrating Photosynth into Virtual Earth and Bing Maps, perhaps adding Everyscape-like interior spaces to Microsoft’s Web mapping tools. But in any case, the team behind it has made some nice improvements and additions over the last year. One is a Silverlight-based viewer that lets you explore synths on Mac computers, not just Windows machines. (The synther, alas, is still Windows-only.) Another is iSynth, a very cool Photosynth app for the iPhone, which, thanks to its multi-touch interface, is actually a better platform for exploring synths than a regular computer.

*  *  *

Next week I’ll tell you about four more cool digital projects that will take you beyond words and images to areas like podcasting, animation, mapmaking, and 3-D virtual worlds. Meanwhile, I can’t resist plugging a recent book that’s tailor-made for creative souls who are interested in expressing themselves through various (digital and non-digital) media. It’s called A Creative Guide to Exploring Your Life: Self-Reflection Using Photography, Art and Writing, by my friends Graham Gordon Ramsay and Holly Barlow Sweet. (Full disclosure: I helped Graham and Holly with the editing on the book.) It’s a fantastic source of ideas, guidance, and inspiration for anyone who wants to cultivate both their creative skills and their self-understanding.

Continue to Part Two

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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