Scott Snibbe may be making headlines because of his design work for Björk, but he’s been on the interactive-multimedia-art block for decades. In 1995, he created a critically acclaimed piece of networked digital art called MotionPhone, which lets users on separate computers create simple animations by hand on a shared virtual canvas. Now, 17 years later, he’s redesigned and updated this old chestnut for the iPad—whose touchscreen interface makes fingerpainting-with-animation even more intuitive than anything Snibbe could’ve dreamed up in 1995. Here’s how it works:
Like his previous app Oscilloscoop, MotionPhone’s UI and controls don’t offer much in the way of obvious instruction. The interface is spare and sci-fi-ish, like a control panel for an alien spaceship. There isn’t a single word of explanatory text, so the best way to understand what all the cool-looking symbols do is to just start tapping and playing with them. Obviously, this no-handholding interaction scheme is intentional—it’s Snibbe’s way of saying, "Don’t think. Don’t worry about rules. Just start creating."
And creating with MotionPhone is definitely fun. The basic idea is that you can create simple loops of animation just by tapping, drawing, or swiping your fingers on the screen. Then you can add more layers of animation on top to create compositions that look like Wassily Kandinsky compositions come to life. MotionPhone’s canvas is infinite, so when you fill up the iPad’s screen, just pinch to zoom out and reveal more space.
And that’s where the "Phone" part of MotionPhone comes into play. The app lets you graphically "converse" with up to four other devices by linking the same canvas via iOS’s Game Center technology. You can collaborate on animations together, or even have them visually "fight" with each other in real time (if you’re a more pugilistic kind of artist). Snibbe, in his press release, calls this "a new form of visual communication." I don’t think MotionPhone will be replacing email or IM anytime soon, but it’s a wonderful example of how devices like the iPad can breathe life into old ideas and make them feel powerfully new again.