Kai's Power

Matthew Hutson, English 111, Brown University (1998)

Legendary software designer Kai Krause plays a central role in the debate over creative independence within a digital medium. Kai's name is approaching household-word status, as he has largely defined the market (and art) of computer-based image manipuation, with the creation and distribution of Kai's Power Tools (KPT), Bryce (a landscape gererator named after the gorgeous Bryce Canyon in Utah), Kai's Power Goo, and others. KPT, the most successful of his pieces of software from MetaTools, adds powerful extensions to Adobe Photoshop (the leader in the field of computer-image manipulation) that have become standard issue for any serious graphic designer. His Tools provide virtual, well, tools for the shaping, reshaping, and creation of images on the computer and further increase Photoshop's ability to make novice users produce professional-quality work in minutes. This particularly emphasizes the complaint many visual artists have that digital short-cuts to various processes (such as mapping an image onto various complex, realistic textures) circumvent many skills that require independant artistic merit. As the Atlantic Monthly columnist Ralph Lombreglia states in his article, "The Genie in the Machine", about Kai Krause:

Using a MetaTools product is rather like rubbing a magic lamp and having powerful genies come out to do startling things. Sometimes you can't get the genies to do the same thing twice; more often, you can't believe what the genies just did, and you run off to drag somebody back to your computer. Those genies consist of awesome mathematical engines and programming, but you never need to be aware of that. In this sense, Mr. Krause guides the development of ground-breaking software with a remarkable modesty, the visual flamboyance of his designs notwithstanding. A decade ago, even the military couldn't have bought the engineering in a typical MetaTools consumer product (and it would have required a supercomputer anyway), yet today the playful interfaces leave most users blissfully ignorant of the technology they're skating and squishing and sliding around on.

Despite this newfound ease of faking artistic talent, anyone experienced in Photoshop can spot a fraud from a mile away. To those uninitiated, the numerous effects built in to Photoshop, plus those of KPT, provide a dazzling array of dramatic alterations one can apply to an image at the click of a mouse. Once one becomes more familiar with these filters and effects, one can spot their use quite easily. Thus it takes a bit more than blindly following an instruction manual to impress experienced users.

The same is true, I would say, of just about any form of artwork; those unfamiliar with a given process may be dazzled by its results, but can rarely estimate the genuine level of talent required to produce such a work. This annoys many graphic designers in particular, but I would respond to their complaints with the suggestion that they take it to the next level. With the mass appropriation of any field of art, there will be a time when everyone produces astounding results, but eventually the novelty will subside and only those who take the tools to new levels will remain at the front of the pack. This is a continuous process and tends to keep people like me motivated, because one cannot rest on one's laurels; technology will evolve, thereby pushing the standards, and if one does not continuously work to stay ahead of these standards, one will sit back and collect dust. Frustration with new technology because of its ease of use suggests a kind of elitism within an artist, and perhaps a fair amount of laziness.

During an interview [I highly highly recommend reading the witty, insightful interview in its entirety, but for the sake of staying on topic, I'll quote bits of the interview where appropriate.] with Kai, Ralph Lombreglia explores this same issue: "When the magic comes from algorithms, does it carry a kind of confinement with it?" Kai responds:

Perfectly reasonable argument, and I totally agree. There is a dilemma here for me. On one hand, I am responsible for a lot of mediocre creations that do not deserve the moniker "art" in the first place. When I get sent endless floppies and zips and CDs with glass balls on fractals and page curls over noise textures [examples of the easiest and most obvious imagery to create with Kai's Power Tools], I am on one hand disappointed with the lack of determination to search deeper than the presets we provide. On the other hand, I also have to see that everyone, no matter how cool and professional they now are, started with a bunch of silly yellow triangles and ugly-as-dung pixelly lines.

In other words, we all have to go through phases of silliness and sameness to find our unique space. My hope is that at least some of our amateur users find enough fun to stick with it and discover their graphic heart. The analogy I always use is that of Sony's inventing the camcorder: all the movies of weddings and babies are ludicrous if watched under the guideline of cinematography, but the camcorder is not a shortcut to Citizen Kane . . . In that sense I do not like my tools to be approached as one-click-art short cuts to Mona Lisa, but as beautiful aids for playing with your own brain.

Kai hopes to carry this encouragement to explore beyond the land of real-looking tools. The imagination of the user tends to bump against the boundaries that analogue (manual, physical) processes allow, and with the powers of digital media, Kai allows the user to step beyond these limitations.

The user is coming into our "world" for a time, and that world is geared toward exploration. The software is not merely a tool that executes what you already know; it is capable of much more than you could possibly already know. We want the interface to create a sense of wonder and lighthearted playfulness: everything is just one trial mouse-click away, the user sees results quickly, and everything can be undone.

. . . When we created the Texture Explorer, for instance, it became commonplace that someone would go in there searching for a piece of granite and end up three hours later with glowing magma barnacle larks vomit instead. The production people are truly pissed off at that, yet all I can say is, tough cheese. . . . There is plenty of software out there for rendering a 3-D slab of granite. Or you could get this totally newfangled thing, Actual Reality. I hear it's great: take a picture of a real piece of granite. . . . woof!

Kai attempts to redefine our conception of analog media. The tools he creates are simple and intuitive, yet they have no traditional analog in the real world. Some are vaguely based on familiar actions, such as the "nudge" tool in Goo, and other take a full leap into the world of abstraction, but they all feel natural. He has fit his interfaces to the natural human imagination, taking the process from learning-techniques-out-of-a-manual, to "play."

  • Digital Aesthetics.

  • Analogue/Digital OV Cyberspace OV InfoTech