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Interactive Experiences: Artist John Carpenter's Haptic Media Systems

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In the realm of technology, "haptic" refers to touch-based computer systems. However, the word can be used to help describe artworks that respond to people's gestures: pointing, pushing, waving, touching. Haptics explores new directions in human-computer interaction, and in the hands of people such as L.A.-based media artist John Carpenter, it contributes to creating enormously compelling experiences, less about the pragmatics and functionality of computers, data and information, and more about the wonder and joy of embodied exploration. "With a haptic connection, you can create a link between the virtual world of information and the real world, and that simple thing can be incredible," Carpenter explains.

Out of the blue.

How did Carpenter get wrapped up in haptics? It's a round-about story, growing out of his incredibly varied interests. Indeed, when he was a kid, his friends played a game - when he made statement or announced an idea, they would collectively sift back through all of the words in each of the sentences said by the group over a particular period of time; they were trying to trace the genesis of the otherwise inexplicable thought. What comment connected with which joke juxtaposed with some other observation to generate a totally out-of-the-blue concept? It's admittedly a strange kid's game, but it underscores Carpenter's drive to make connections and form linkages among seemingly unrelated things. The game continues today, with a similar sense of inquisitiveness, but directed toward a growing body of interactive artworks created by the young artist: where in the world did that come from?

John Carpenter, Dandelion Clock.
John Carpenter, Dandelion Clock

Dandelion Clock

Here's an example that suggests the power of Carpenter's ability to make unusual connections in his interactive artworks: three years ago, he created a project based on a dandelion. As you ventured into the gallery you would see the large, brightly illuminated flower. It was a projected image, sparkly white light in a dark room. Moving about slowly, you could admire its simple shape. At a certain moment, though, your body would trigger the piece, and the dandelion's seeds would begin to scatter. They would float weightlessly upward, arcing over an invisible field. You could wave your arm to the right, and the seeds would tumble and twirl in the wind toward the far wall. Swinging your arm in the opposite direction sent the seeds spiraling to the left. Most visitors were soon undulating and spinning around. Pure delight.

dandelion clock at young projects (2011) from johnbcarpenter on Vimeo.


That particular piece is titled Dandelion Clock and the simplest way to trace its origins is to understand that Carpenter earned his MFA from the Design Media Arts program at UCLA where he came to appreciate the behavior of systems through working with artist Casey Reas, and he learned the value of emotion, feeling and embodiment in interactive media through the mentorship of artist Jennifer Steinkamp.


But there's more. Carpenter's undergraduate work was the unlikely combination of molecular biology, studio art and psychology; his first jobs included stints with Thom Mayne at Morphosis Architects where he helped imagine interactive spaces, and at Cal Tech, where he worked with a team of scientists in Scott Fraser and Russ Jacob's Biological and Brain Imaging Center on visualization techniques. He now works at Oblong Industries where, under the tutelage of John Underkoffler, he's developing a design ethos founded on intuitive interaction. Right now, he loves genetic code, emergent behaviors, the way memory works, emotional connection and intuition. He's part artist, part scientist, part designer, part programmer. And he's a super nice guy with a permanent smile and indefatigable curiosity.

John Carpenter, Trailers Anemone.
John Carpenter, "Trailers Anemone."

Make it last.

"I wanted to find a way to take an ephemeral moment and make it last," Carpenter says of the dandelion project. "A lot of my inspiration comes from the natural world and the nonlinear relationship between the light and shapes," he continues. "In this case, you basically can move through the system, which includes a 3D scanner tracking your movement and elements of optical flow and fluid dynamics, and while the dandelion will pull back together every 30 seconds, you can keep interacting with it."


With another interactive immersive project, SOCnet, Carpenter collaborated with Adam Stieg of UCLA's California Nanosciences Institute to explore patterns of connectivity as viewers move through the project, altering the environment and creating new connections and nodes. "What I love about this work is seeding an environment and then seeing what grows out of it. It's kind of like gardening when you plant seeds but you're not sure how it will all grow. That kind of unpredictability is one of the things that I love so much about programming."

SOCnet v2.0 at the UCLA California NanoSystems Institute (2012) from johnbcarpenter on Vimeo.


Last year, Carpenter designed an interactive artwork for Wolfgang Puck's Las Vegas restaurant Trattoria del Lupo. "The four-screen installation has trails of light," Carpenter says, "and not only can you affect the glows, but you can affect the piece as a whole." He adds, "I can't believe we didn't break one of the $300 bottles of alcohol while we were installing it!"

John Carpenter, Trailers Lupo
John Carpenter, Trailers Lupo

Emergent behaviors.

Carpenter's most recent project looks like the flowing trails of a sea anemone. It is similar in some ways to Dandelion Clock, but in this case, Carpenter was interested in new ways of affecting the work. "The trails became paths through time and space, and you can change their history as well as their paths. So when I move around and affect the system, I'm actually changing its history along with the trajectories of the trails."

John Carpenter, Trailers Anemone.
John Carpenter, Trailers Anemone.


Carpenter continues, explaining what he loves about interactivity and works that use sensing to respond to participants. "I've always thought that interaction is important because it gives you a more intimate understanding or a greater connection to the work, so part of the goal is to communicate with people or tell them about an idea by having them step into the system and interact with it. That's a really powerful way to get your message across. It's sort of a double-edged sword so I always try to design my work so that it's interesting as a stand-alone piece, always doing something different, but if someone will actually take the step and interact with it, they get a whole other experience. And I try to make that a really rewarding thing, too, so that first moment, when you disturb the dandelion or grow up the trails, you realize, Oh, there's this whole other world to this piece."

trailers_anemone installation at ACME. los angeles from johnbcarpenter on Vimeo.

Oblong Industries.

The fascination with interaction and communicating ideas through touch, gesture and movements of the body serves Carpenter well at Oblong, a company dedicated to reimagining how we exchange ideas and convey meaning, as well as to reconfiguring technology to emphasize human experience. Founded in 2006, the company has created its own technology platform called g-speak that supports the development of applications designed for multiple screens and devices. The company is also responsible for Mezzanine, an entirely new form of group-based discussion that integrates disparate media forms in a dynamic space of interaction and exchange. A swipe of the arm sends images and words sailing across multiple screens, and participants can easily add their own materials to the collection using their computers or phones. Forget PowerPoint and one person dominating the visual presentation; with Mezzanine, everyone contributes in a fluid, dynamic way.

Kid in a candy story.

Oblong is also responsible for a series of projects that invite us to interact with information and data in completely new ways. In one project, you can seemingly reach out and rotate parts of a brain visualization in order to see different areas more clearly. In another, earthquake data becomes information you can touch, move, twist and turn. "The things you can do with information and data across pixels in space is really amazing," says Carpenter. "We have the ability to use spatial inputs like gesture or the wand to deal with these complex spaces, like the inside of a brain, or earthquake data or a whole bunch of information on different industries related to IBM. It's so natural and intuitive."

Greenhouse :: OMEagination from Oblong Industries on Vimeo.

Haptic again.

"It creates a haptic connection to virtual information that's really important," says Carpenter. "So that's where a lot of my thinking as evolved lately, having worked here, and being able to use all these great tools. You can do these innately human things, like point at something and have it light up, and that simple thing can be incredible."

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