According to science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Google Creative Lab’s Indy Saha is making it his mission to bring magic and tech together, to help recapture the sense of wonder that people felt the first time they found their house on Google Earth.
Google Creative Lab is a “vagabond team” comprising makers of all disciplines; coders, designers, filmmakers and artists. Their objective is to continually find new, creative uses for technology, while solving real problems. “Technology powers creativity,” says Saha, “and when it’s done right, it has the power to tell stories in new ways, to surprise you, to make you feel superhuman, to make you feel part of something bigger than yourself, to immerse you.”
A number of the Lab’s most innovative products began as a way to let more people know about various Google features. For instance, in order to promote their web speech API, which enables users to speak directly into Chrome and have their words turned into text, Saha and his team came up with a speak-to-play game which helps people around the world improve their English.
Similar efforts to raise awareness of the various uses for browser-based, ten-way video chat led to the Lab partnering with the Comic Relief charity and launching Hangout Comedy Club. They created a facial recognition algorithm to detect smiles (the “laugh-o-meter”) and suggested a donation to charity based on how much the viewer laughed during the show. The team piloted this at Edinburgh Fringe, and audiences loved both the interactive nature of the Hangout and the idea of “a laugh changing a life.”
Saha’s mission goes deeper than the user side; he wants to show developers that there is more to Google tools than mundane tasks. He started DevArt as a means of reframing coding as a creative discipline, and to challenge perceptions of programmers as the back office loner, hunched over a keyboard. “They are the heroes championing creativity,” he says.
DevArt teamed up with the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibition to demonstrate the value and appeal of code as an artistic medium. Three artists had already been commissioned to create an original work of art through code; DevArt reached out to the developer community GitHub to secure a fourth. The winning piece consisted of a screen onto which the silhouette of the viewer is projected, and they are then thrown into an augmented reality story. Spectators on the other side of the screen might see the viewer moving, dancing or running on the spot, but the individual is lost in the narrative.
Spinning off from the exhibit, DevArt started its Young Creators programme, reaching out to school kids aged 9 to 13 in the boroughs surrounding the Barbican (which ironically had incredibly low levels of IT further education), and bringing them in to work on their first line of code. The sessions were led by the artists from the exhibition, who were able to show the students that a single line of code can create something beautiful, like a butterfly.
To Saha, that is what Google Creative Lab and DevArt are all about. “While technology is our creative starting point, craft, art, and imagery are also incredibly important to us, in order to add new meaning to the technology.”