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October 21, 2013 - RAGameSound

Since Burning Man this year, most of my SoundSelf time has been spent showing SoundSelf[], describing SoundSelf, and developing new ideas. We've been preparing our Kickstarter rewards, showing the game at Indiecade, and in the coming two weeks we'll be at GameCity[] (Nottingham), Gamercamp[] (Toronto) and MineCon[] (Orlando).

But while software development has slowed down, research has not. Here are a few of things that have excited and inspired me in the last few weeks:


I discovered this album through a Radiolab short[] devoted to it. I absolutely recommend checking it out.

Trance states are accessed through repetition. This is why many meditation techniques include a mantra, it's why trance music (and music by definition) is based on repetition repetition, it's why SoundSelf uses chanting (repeated voice) as it's controller, and it's why you see delusional people repeating the same words again and again.

Dawn of Midi's album is as much a tribute to repetition as Ravel's Bolero. But that repetitive structure is reduced to an elemental focus - the beat.

As a student of trance, of particular interest to me is the way the different beats work together. In stark contrast with shamanic drumming, there's no global tempo in Dysnomia. Often three or four percussive patterns will be in play at the same time, each instrument following its own distinct beat. I found my mind shifting between the different instruments: as I rested my mind on a new rhythm, a formerly dominant rhythm would phase in and out of synchronization and syncopation.

Listening to this album has given me a new frame of reference for thinking about rhythm (and repetition at all, for that matter) as a tool for trance induction in SoundSelf.


The LACMA has a retrospective right now for light artist James Turrell. If you're in LA... DO NOT MISS IT![]

Most of Turrell's pieces occupy an entire room, as they are designed to envelop participants in unique and sometimes illusory experiences of light.

The pieces are difficult to describe because they are not symbolic in nature. They are unique experiences of light and perception, as indescribably experiential as floating in a sense deprivation chamber is.

Turrell's current project is (and has been for the past twenty-something years) converting a volcanic crater into a sort of modern-day Stone Henge: temples paying tribute to the sun, the sky, and human perception at dance with the cosmos.


The Singularity Project is artist David Tamargo's entry in the Indiecade / Oculus VR Jam. It takes abstract fine art and explodes it into kinetic 3D. If you're into SoundSelf, you'll be into this.

I really love it when art makes me feel small and puts my life into geological scale. This is a to-scale puppet of a prehistoric ichthyosaur that once lived in the now dried lake bed that plays host to the Burning Man festival. And it's pregnant.


Daniel Kahneman puts his long career of brain research into this deep but accessible model that describes the brain as simultaneously working in two radically different ways: fast and slow. It's a wonderful read for anybody interested in biases and learning.


A short book with a deep and narrow focus: Trance. How it happens, the flavors it comes in, how to control it, and how it is often used irresponsibly.

You can see more of SoundSelf's inspirations on our facebook page.

October 11, 2013 - Cellulose

Evan Balster here. I'm SoundSelf's back-end engineer and co-designer. Helping Robin to understand new mathematical concepts that play into the design and development of the program is a big part of my job, and today I'll be doing some of that explanation for you. Consider this the first installment of...


What you see below is the beginning of a new visual generative system for SoundSelf. Click it to visit our interactive ShaderToy page.

This is the default formulation of the shader, which can be manipulated with the mouse.

It's loosely based on a concept called Cymatics, and computed as a sum of sines much like our existing harmonograph system. Instead of geometry, however, the sum computes an intensity value per pixel which is represented as color.

Move the ring of control nodes near the center for more regular, intense shapes.

The sine waves being summed in this demonstration are functions of distance from a point. Like ripples in a pond, they spread out and weaken. As more are added in regular or irregular arrangements we can get complex shapes as seen above. The default arrangement is a ring of control points arranged using the golden ratio.

We're also experimenting with other wave functions which may offer more possibilities, as seen here:

This uses a combination of three circular ripples, a horizontal "bar" ripple and a vertical "bar" ripple. Symmetric patterns can often resemble faces.

The shader above was produced in a short time yesterday after a long discussion about what emergent system of visuals we should explore after the harmonograph. Emergence is a concept that is fundamental to the creation of SoundSelf; it is the phenomenon of complex behaviors or manifestations arising from simple rules that interact. The simpler the rules, and the more complex the manifestations, the deeper the emergence runs.

Because the harmonograph is deeply emergent, we very frequently see things in SoundSelf that we've never seen before. Interesting, sometimes beautiful forms that were not intentfully designed into the system are a common occurrence. Every oscillation has the power to transform the entire harmonograph, and with many tens of these at play the range of possibilities is immense.

Cymatics is one of the systems we discussed. In essence, if sand or dust is placed on a plate and that plate is subjected to harmonic vibrations, the plate will form standing waves as a function of the vibration and ts overlapping reflections. The sand will pile into intriguing patterns of points and lines which represent areas of stability, which differ based on the plate's shape and size and the vibration's source and frequency.

For a very simple home demonstration, fill a wine glass with water, near to the brim, dip your finger in the water and slide it across the lip to make the glass "sing". A nearly full glass produces a deep sound and standing waves can be seen in the water, rotating in time with the vibration source (your finger).

This model, unlike the others, simulates the reflection patterns seen in square-plate cymatics. However, it's expensive to simulate.

My initial evaluation of this system was discouraging -- the actual forces and behaviors at work are prohibitively complex. However, the underlying concepts of waves and reflections, cancellation and stability are somewhat simpler. Distilling this process to a more representational method without concern for physical realism gives rise to a number of possibilities for simple, emergent systems. It would be accurate to say these are "inspired by cymatics" more than anything.

The experiments above are just scratching the surface of what can be done here. We'll see what else we can find in this peculiar world of ripples. And of course, we'll make sure there's far, far more to be found in SoundSelf through the power of emergence.

October 1, 2013 - RAGameSound

Last month we brought a unique installation version of SoundSelf to Burning Man[]. Making this unusual architectural iteration of our video game took a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, and was only possible because our generous Kickstarter backers pushed us $7,000 past our goal.

Check out the rest of the loving messages visitors left in our Guest Book on our Facebook Page!

Burning Man, 2013

Photos by Dimitri Kouri and Michael Nusbaum[].

September 18, 2013 - RAGameSound

For the first time since our Kickstarter, you can now pre-order or buy alpha access to SoundSelf![]

Gone is the Windows-only prototype of yore! We've still got a long way to go, but this is the beginning of something special that's already exceeding my expectations. Here's what's new from the KickStarter prototype:

- COMPLETELY overhauled music, COMPLETELY overhauled imagery.
- Much more intimate reaction to your voice. It feels more alive now than it ever has before!
- Oculus Rift support!
- More lightweight - won't necessarily melt your machine - not literally anyway!
- Mac and Linux support!

We're also migrating our forums to Steam! So come say hi on our Greenlight community page. :-)

September 18, 2013 - RAGameSound

After playing SoundSelf[], many players describe their experience as though they were interacting with another aware entity. "I did this, and then SoundSelf responded like this, so I did that too...." That's the result of player's perceiving the game responding to the subtleties of their vocal expression in as delicate and attentive a way as another mind might. And while we try to accommodate for nuances in player expression like that, it'd be impossible for us to dream up scenarios adapting to the whole range of vocal expression and intention behind them.

So instead we cheat: We take a limited range of player expression (tonality, rhythm of breath, "grittiness" of voice and vowel shape other ones we're working on) and obscure the way they affect the play experience. The result is that players instinctively know that the audio/visual dance is responding to them, and they make the assumption that it is responding to whatever aspect of themselves they are focusing on at that time.

The magic lies in that assumption, and my job as a designer is to feed players with enough datapoints to validate any assumption they may have. The player is smarter than the game, but the game's responsiveness invites the player to project their own mind into it, and to then imagine that what they are looking upon is a separate mind, not simply a reflection of their own. It's the same mental process as anthropomorphising a beloved pet[], and it's what we're talking about when we describe the game as "a meditative experience."

nyaww, look how happy the Dolphin is!

For a certain kind of game, discovering the truth behind the datapoints is the Eureka moment that the game is designed to facilitate. Thanks in part to Jonathan Blow's in-depth discussions of his design values, this seems to have crystallized into a discipline of game designed that has taken flight in indie games like Braid[], Antichamber[], Storyteller[], and many more.

But for another kind of game, that Eureka moment breaks the game's contract with the player. In SoundSelf, the conceit is that you are dancing with another mind, and if a player were to discover the rules that govern the behavior of that other "mind", the assumed depth would collapse entirely.

In narrative-driven AAA games, I see this contract broken all the time, and as a gamer I can't see past it any more. The AAA is getting better at this every year as they (slowly) climb their way out of the uncanny valley and include simulations of increasingly complex systems (e.g. anything pretending to be human) into their gameplay. Unfortunately, they compromise their promise of immersion as they appeal to the gamer's desire to conquer those systems.

To conquer a system and use it to their advantage (a trope of gameplay almost completely taken for granted in videogames), the player has to understand the intricacies of how it works. As any sociopath eventually discovers though, this just doesn't work with minds. Minds are too chaotic - the best we can do is adjust our assumptions and meet that chaos with our own.

To create a convincing simulation of mind[], it must not fall into predictable "game-able" behavior. In "The Last of Us," each behavior pattern I came to fully grok from the AI reduced them from presumably aware entities, to merely cardboard buttons to be pressed. It pulled me out of the story. [sup]1[/sup]

Fortunately for game designers - humans tend to project their own mind wherever they both (a) identify a responsive system and (b) cannot fully understand the rules governing that system. We don't need to design a complex mind to simulate one - we can get away with designing responsive systems that also cannot be completely understood. Like reading meaning into a random Tarot draw, or seeing faces in the gnarles of wood, people will see mind everywhere with the right balance of predictability and chaos.

[sup]1[/sup] SPOILER ALERT: It could be argued that in "The Last of Us" the descent of the player's perception of the game's enemies from aware-entitites to cardboard-cutout-buttons-to-press effectively mirrors Joel's narrative descent into sociopathy, but I sort of don't buy that.

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