TED2008: How do we create?

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(Unedited running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California. Session seven.)

This is about the point in the program where all the attendees start to talk about TED as an endurance sport. We’re mid-way, but it’s so intense that it feels like it has been going on for weeks…

The session, on "How do we create?", which will be moderated be TED’s June Cohen, opens with inventor-collector Jay Walker — who, as I already said in previous posts, has lent several dozen objects from his personal library to TED for the creation of this year’s stage — showing a few pictures of his fabled "library of the imagination", a 3-stories-high trove designed like an Escher painting, with glass bridges connecting upper levels, walls covered with ancient manuscripts, and incredible artifacts of human creation. Here a picture, possibly never seen before:


If you’ve seen and enjoyed "Pirates of the Caribbean" or "Star Wars"
(episodes I and II), a large part of your enjoyment was due to visual
effects wizard John Knoll of Industrial Light and Magic. Incidentally,
he’s also one of the co-inventors of graphic-editing software
Photoshop. So John knows his way in the alleys of creativity.
Visual effects in the script are what you can’t go out and shoot, sometimes because it doesn’t exist, or because it’s too dangerous (incredible stunts) or just not possible to do in any other way (he shows examples). There are different techniques to overcome this problem: matte paintings (an old technique for creating virtual sets where they painted landscapes on pieces of glass, superposing them on the original footage; now it’s done digitally of course), miniatures, blue/greenscreen composites, and computer graphics. John compares images from 1954’s "20’000 Leagues Under The Sea" with "Pirates": ships, sea battles, sea monsters scenes, simulation of water and waves.

the past decade San Francisco-based designer Yves Béhar and
his firm Fuseproject have produced game-changing designs for cell phone
headsets (Jawbone), shoes (Birkenstock), computers (OLPC’s XO laptop)
or table lamps (Herman Miller’s "Leaf"). A while back Fast Company
magazine published a great profile of Yves.
His mother is Swiss, his father Turkish, he grew up in Switzerland, and he shows some of the objects that were around the home — furniture, carpets. "I realized that objects tell stories — and storytelling has been a big influence on my work. Then there was another influence, from my teen passions, ski and windsurfing — so I combined them into a contraption for surfing over frozen lakes. Then, design school, where I asked alot of questions — do people really need the caps-lock key on a computer keyboard? — and found this quote: "Advertising is the price companies pay for being un-original". I moved to SF, created my own firm, and started working on projects — watch, furniture, etc. The "Leaf" lamp was meant to create a new experience of light, giving a choice for the user to go from a glowing moonlight to a very bright worklight, and everything in between — we designed both the lamp and the bulb. All of these projects have a humanistic side to them.
Jawbone — the Bluetooth headset (photo below left) — has a humanistic side: it feels you skin and knows when you’re talking and when you’re talking it filters out the other surrounding noises. But it’s also about taking out the techie stuff and make it beautiful — if it isn’t beautiful, it really doesn’t belong on your face.
Design is never done — you have to do all this other stuff, packaging etc — and continue to touch the user. We developed a bottle for a vitamin-infused organic drink targeted at kids: the bottle is symmetrical from every side, and can have a second life as a toy using connectors. And because "why?" is one of the questions that kids ask more often, we called it Y Water (photo right):


His most recent project: NYC Condom, launched on Valentine’s day. The Dept of Health in NY needed a way to distribute 36 million condoms for free. fuseproject worked on a dispenser, which needs to be easily seviceable etc. They’re being installed all over the city. fuseproject also designed the condoms (and Béhar throws a handful of them into the audience…)
If we all work together in creating value and  keep in mind the values of the work that we do, maybe we can change the world.

J. Lang
is an origami artist (origami: the ancient Japanese art of
paper-folding). He uses maths to analyze folding patterns and create
origamis with hundreds of folds and sophisticated curves. Most people still think that origami is flapping birds made of paper, but it’s really become something much more sophisticated — thank to mathematics. Origamis, Lang explains, revolve around crease patterns, and they all have to obey four laws: colorability (you can color them so that two colors never touch), always even folds (the number of folds always varies by two), alternate angles; and layer ordering (no matter how you stack a sheet, it can never penetrate a fold). If you obey these laws, you can do amazing things. And indeed, here are some of the origamis showed by Lang — they’re all single-sheet folds:


This has also allowed the creation of origami on-demand, including graphics, ads, and commercials. This for example is a video ad for Mitsubishi: everything in the ad is an origami, except the car:

The "extreme folding" structures developed for origamis turn out to have applications in medicine, science, and engineering: things like packing airbags, heart implants and spaceship and space telescope parts into the smallest
possible places. "An origami, someday, may even save a life".

Writer Amy Tan — American of Chinese
descent — has written a series of bestselling novels, including "The
Bonesetter’s Daughter" and "The Kitchen God’s Wife".  She’s also
written children books and has appeared in The Simpsons. She focuses on
the creative process, journeying through her childhood and family history looking for hints of where her own creativity comes from. The value of nothing: out of nothing comes something. That’s an essay she wrote when she was 11 and got a B+. How do we create? She shows a triangle with corners at Nature, Nurture and Nightmares. Some people would say that we’re born with it; others that creativity may be a function of some neurological quirk; part of it also begins with a sense of identity crisis (why I am not Black like everything else in my school class?), with childhood traumas,  with expectations. "This led to my big questions: why do things happen, how do they happen, and how do I make them happen? When I look at creativity, my inability to repress associations with everything about me is key". She goes off doing a comparison between quantum mechanics and creativity: "you’ve alot of unknown; dark energy and dark matter; the observer effect — if you try too hard what you’re hoping to find by serendipity at the end is no longer there; ambiguity; multi-dimensions. Much has to do with intention. You notice disturbing hints from the universe, and then in a way I knew that they’ve always been there. What I need in effect is a focus. When I have a question, I have a focus, and all these object go through that question. You think that there is some coincidence or serendipity that your’e getting all this help from the universe, but it really is that now you’ve a focus. Why am I here? When I look at all these things that are morally ambiguous, it seems so obvious, and yet it is not. We all hate moral ambiguity, and yet it is so necessary in writing a story, it’s the place where I begin. Luck, chance of course, and accidents also play a role, often a mysterious role. How do I create something out of nothing? By questioning, and acknowledging that there are no absolute truths. By thinking about luck and fate, coincidences and accidents, God’s will and the synchrony of mysterious forces. By thinking about our role. By imagining fully and becoming what is imagined. And that’s how I find particles of truth. So there are never complete answers. Or if there is one is it to remind myself that there is uncertainty in everything, and that’s good. And if there is a more complete answer, it is to simply imagine. Imagination is the closest thing to feeling compassion".
She carried a bag on stage at the beginning of her speech. She opens it now to reveal what’s in the bag: her dog, who trots out of stage .

June shows a clip from Marjane Satrapi‘s animated movie "Persepolis", based on her autobiographical novel of the same name about a young girl coming of age against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution.

is the Head of the MIT Media Lab‘s Hyperinstruments/Opera of
the Future Group (now that’s a job title). He has composed five operas
and invented several musical technologies, including "hyperinstruments"
— an approach that extends virtuosity. (Yo-Yo Ma and Prince among others have
adopted it).
"We all love music, but it’s more powerful if you don’t just listen to it but make it. Everybody in the world has the power to be part of music in a very dynamic way. At the Media Lab we’ve been engaged in an approach called Active Music. We started by making hyperinstruments that have all kind of sensors built in, so the instrument knows how it is been played. We asked ourselves: why can’t we make instruments like those for everybody — and that produced the Brain Opera, and Guitar Hero. Music is very transformative, can change your life, your body, your mind.
Music, even better than words, is a powerful way to explain who we are. If I was playing cello here I could share things about myself that I can’t do in words. Music is a very powerful interface". Machover shows the "Chandelier", a central set piece in a new opera he’s written called "Death and the Powers" which will premiere in Monaco in September 2009: it’s both a sculpture and a new kind of musical instrument (picture right).
Most recently, Machover has focused on using music in therapy
for the physically and mentally handicapped and on developing
technologies to allow them to compose and perform music . What if I could make an instrument that adapt to I really am, to my real capacities, Machover asks, and he calls up on stage Adam Boulanger, a PhD student working with him, and Dan Ellsey,
a cerebral palsy patient
in a wheelchair. Dan
communicates via a computer-controlled "talking box". Boulanger and Machover developed technology allowing Dan to use his limited possibilities of expression to create and perform music by using both
brain waves and small movements of his face and eyes
. Dan performs his composition — and the music is great, and it gets a standing ovation.