A Few Words on TouchDesigner

TouchDesigner is an extremely powerful and versatile tool for media and interactive art. I was introduced to this program by Tavia Morra, and got my first lessons in it from a workshop done by Daniel Schaeffer. More and more, I find myself gravitating towards making my interactive projects with it, particularly since it allows for just about any kind of trigger, and you can control huge numbers of LEDs via Artnet. Theoretically, you can control over 5.5 million LEDs via Artnet!

But why TouchDesigner instead of Madrix or LightJams or Vixen? Madrix in particular is an extremely powerful LED mapping tool, and the option exists to invest in the Madrix ecosystem – a lineup of hardware that allows you to create and customize amazing LED installations in a significantly more intuitive manner than TouchDesigner. Madrix allows you to map video, generate procedural animations, and create sound reactive installations. I wouldn’t exactly call it user friendly, but in the main, not many interfaces for LEDs are.

The reason I go with TouchDesigner lies in it’s ability to create amazing interactive triggers. With TouchDesigner, I can interface with almost any input format or technology. This allows me to integrate a vast number of potential interactive elements that Madrix doesn’t even begin to work with. For instance, with The Quacken, we integrated a custom microcontroller through USB serial to trigger animations for the tentacles. As near as I can tell, only a few other software packages allow you to do that. True, we could have done it in Processing, or even C, using a RasPi or an Arduino, but that means dealing with a wall of text, increased debugging, and not being able to look at your software and have a reasonable visual representation of how commands and information move through it. If you have the luxury of being able to use a laptop or computer to drive your animations, TouchDesigner is one of the most powerful options for controlling an interactive installation.

Since you can use serial communication over USB, any sensor package that is available for Arduino, RasPi, Beaglebone, etc., can be integrated into your installation. Temperature, pressure, sound, vibration, motion, heartbeat, potentiometers, capacitance touch, accelerometers. . .this list barely scratches the surface of what is available. The list of sensors available for DIY electronics is extensive to say the least. Furthermore, TouchDesigner natively accepts a multitude of other input formats, including most audio formats, MIDI, OSC, Leap Motion, Photoshop, DMX, TCP/IP, Ableton Live, Kinect, RealSense. . .you can easily see that the possibilities for interactivity are basically limitless.

Now for the downside. If you want to use Arduino or other DIY electronics, you need to know at least minimally how to program them. And of course, you need to be proficient in TouchDesigner, which has a bit of a learning curve. The possibilities of TouchDesigner only really open up if you have a decent working knowledge of Python. Fortunately, TouchDesigner has a fairly robust community that can help guide you. Right now, I am circling back to hone my basic knowledge of TouchDesigner by going through the tutorials of the inestimable Matthew Ragan. More amazing tutorials can be found on the TouchDesigner wiki, ranging from the basic concepts and working all the way up to generating your own procedural animations. And once you get some practice in, and get over that learning curve hump, you suddenly have a tool that allows you to make interactive installations that are limited only by your budget and imagination.


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