Sebastian Oschatz on VVVV

August 14, 2009 by nicolas, tagged programming and art_and_code, filed under commentary

Another talk about a MAX related project, this time we have VVVV from Meso. The talk goes into more details about the inner workings and the advantages of such a visual language. ― more information.

Vvvv is an application and visual programming language published by MESO, a company cofounded by Sebastian Oschatz. Its creation is justified by Sebastian Oschatz as a reaction to the bland and numerous visualization projects which were thriving at the time in the media art community.

MESO’s business model — since it is a company — requires vvvv’s source code to be proprietary. Although the program is free to download and play with, it must be licensed once set up in a commercial context.

MESO’s three developers choose to make vvvv run solely on windows and directx, ensuring the best and most efficient support for such a small team.

Historical roots: MAX/MSP & Pure Data

The user interacts with a constantly running "patch" of nodes connected together with wires. Each wire define the flow of data between operations (nodes) which have inputs (inlets) and outputs (outlets.)

Programs are defined spatially, and syntax errors are never encountered. A program is reinterpreted as soon as it is changed, and runs constantly, always producing content.

VVVV's specifics

The heart of vvvv is a single processing loop, designed to service realtime video processing. Each nodes stands for a particular state — a complex value — in contrast to the original model used by MAX of nodes as message transformation devices. Mentally, the computation model is not that of "pushing messages to children", rather it is about "querying ascendant nodes about their current state".

Networked patches are also supported from scratch (does MAX do it nowadays?)

Sebastian Oschwatz’ presentation style is didactic and slightly detached, and I clearly dozed off in the middle of his presentation, especially as he plod through the following list of topics he covered:

  1. (5:25) program while the program is running — instant feedback is provided. It makes program building enjoyable and almost playful, and very immediate.
  2. (12:00) inputs at the top, outputs at the bottom — a general downward flow. The types of layout based rules are common in the MAX family yet sometimes a bit hidden. Pure Data for example has horizontal layout rules.
  3. (16:37) naming is optional — naming things scares non-programmers. We would rather say that naming values and operations is hard, not scary.
  4. (17:55) states and not events — states can be queried and are mutable, enabling optimizations such as not recomputing any descendants if state has not changed.
  5. (20:06) spreads — only one data type is moved between nodes, the 1d array. Meso show its tendency to rename/rebrand concepts.
  6. (22:45) no errors — no syntax errors in particular. All nodes are made resilient to input data: numbers or array are not constrained to any domain or size and operations are made then via wrapping (modulo arithmetics)
  7. (29:06) boygrouping — synchronization of multiple computers and screens. What a strange name again.
  8. (36:30) directx / shading languages — modern 3d hardware is supported, and well.

In a very striking part at the end he presents integration with shading languages, which are interpreted by the graphic card. It is striking because we could not feel but slightly uncomfortable as he proceeded to praise a textual language, manipulated with a plain old decrepit text editor. Especially after having praised a visual language for about 30 minutes.

Why doesn’t vvvv provide a graphical manipulation of HLSL shaders? Why lose the — no error, no syntax to learn — benefits he presented earlier? At least
the sense of immediacy is preserved: a shading program is edited and in an instant automatically uploaded to the graphic card.

At this point we are reminded of Field (OpenEndedGroup) a runtime environment which embraces the textual representation of programs and merges it in a rich graphical environment. It seems that vvvv could logically bridge the two, starting from the other direction.