Entertainment TED Talks

Everything goes better with fire: Jared Ficklin at TED2012

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Photo: Ryan Lash

Jared Ficklin‘s passions are music, technology, and making things. And he brings them together to visualize sound — with fire. Real fire on stage. He’s built a Ruben Tube, a long copper pipe with a hundred holes on it, attached to a tank of propane.¬†He turns on a tune at 550 Hertz, and the tube responds, showing a standing wave of fire. (The audience applauds hesitantly, and Ficklin assures them, “It’s ok to applaud the laws of physics.”)

Then he gets to the real fire: a fire table, and he puts on some jazz, to show us the eigenmodes, gentle waves that respond to this music. It’s a subtly beautiful response to the jazz guitar he puts on. And we learn: “Jazz is better with fire. Actually, most things are better with fire.”

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

That’s wonderful, but “Fire is just the foundation.”

He has a rendering algorithm that he uses to visualize entire songs into a picture in two¬†dimensions. He’s used it to visualize everything from Nirvana albums to the sounds of skateboarders, from which he can tease out social dynamics.

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

He also took the entire Cambridge lectures of Stephen Hawking, rendered all the sound, and placed a star at the end of every sentence. Then he removed everything but the stars, and produced a beautiful rendering that looks exactly like a Hubble photo. Enough people thought the image was fake that he created an interactive version, where you can go in and pick a star and hear the sentence that generated it.

Finally, he shows the beginning of a TEDTalk, with the sound off but the sound visualization below, and demonstrated just how easy it was to see the patterns of music, applause and speech. Because, as he says: “Eyes can hear.”