Playing with fire: Q&A with sound visualist Jared Ficklin

Posted by:

Jared Ficklin speaks at TED2012

Imagine flames that dance to the sounds jazz guitar. Or downloading a song simply because you like the way it looks. Or seeing Stephen Hawking’s Cambridge lectures in the stars. In a mind-expanding talk given at TED2012, design technologist Jared Ficklin demonstrated all three of these ways to literally see sound, as well as several others.

“My passions are music, technology and making things. It’s the combination of these things that’s led me to the hobby of sound visualization,” explains Ficklin in his talk. “Sound moves in all directions, and so do ideas.”

Here, the TED blog asks Ficklin a few questions.

How did it feel giving your talk?

I loved it. I do have a bit of a performance bug, but this was unreal.  I saw the call for auditions on the last day and I said to my wife, “Can I spend all day on the back patio making a video?” And she said, “OK, don’t burn down the house.” Which is something she has to say entirely too often.

This was one of those cases of “send a video off” and then that was a catharsis. I thought, “If I don’t [send] this I will regret it for the rest of my life, but of course, nothing will come of it.” But, something came of it! That was a whole new animal.

Have you ever burned anything down?

I haven’t. I’ve been very careful with fire. I’m actually not a pyromaniac, I’m more interested in sound visualization. Fire is just an amazing tool.

Jared Ficklin and Ruben

Do you give talks on sound visualization often?

I have before, but in a way different format. It’s usually an hour and twenty minutes and way more informal. So the thought that I could do this really formally is new. When I saw the other people who had been selected, I was really honored, and in some way intimidated.

How did you start doing sound visualization?

It goes way back. On one of my slides the flame table is attributed to Harold Daw, who first published it in 1984. He was actually my scout master. Growing up in New Mexico was amazing — a lot of Ph.D.s, and a lot of people who even worked on the Manhattan project. So, he was one of my scout masters.

It kind of slept for a while, and I became a musician. But once I found technology, it came back to me pretty immediately. In 2004 I was writing sound visualization plugins for Windows Media Player, and trying to get Microsoft to take them on. Totally unsuccessful at that, but I took the learnings and just kept it as a hobby.

Can you make a rendering of a song you’ve heard before and ‘see’ what it sounds like?

In general categories, I can. It’s a learning process, like learning to type. In the talk I made the point of the similarities of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana, but Green Day also looks the same because it’s really compressed, distorted guitar pop music, but no one would put Nirvana, the Foo Fighters, and Green Day in the same category. So then you have to look at the next level.

But it looks totally different from Mozart, say.

Oh absolutely. In general categories, it’s automatic.