Artist at Play
An e-mail exchange with Kai Krause
More on Digital Culture
in Atlantic Unbound
Examples of interface designs by Kai Krause:
Even though Krause now leads six software development teams simultaneously, travels the world to work with other wizards, and hides Easter eggs for his children (which he finished doing just before his interview with us), he still manages to make some art of his own. If you'd like to see examples of his imagery, visit the online gallery maintained by MetaTools.
Even a writer can do it. See "A Long Walk Off A Short Pier" by Ralph Lombreglia, created in Bryce in about 15 minutes with no extensive knowledge of the program.
by Ralph Lombreglia
April 16, 1997
The writer John Updike is said to have several different writing rooms in his home, each used for a different kind of work -- a fiction room, a poetry room, a room for writing essays and book reviews. All writers want a special room for working (with door, without telephone), but why would any writer -- even such a deservedly successful and prosperous one as John Updike -- need entirely different rooms for different kinds of writing?
Actually, I know exactly why. Mr. Updike's arrangement sounded great to me the first time I heard about it. I'm sure working in those rooms is his way of staying inspired, fighting boredom and distraction, getting creative work done by being in a space that's not only set aside for work but that also somehow provokes that work, probably in quite subtle ways.
Subtle things make big differences to artists. You don't need to be Vladimir Nabokov to relish the rich metaphysical patina that adheres to the physical surfaces of the world (though being Vladimir Nabokov would be nice). Physical environment makes a big difference to all artists, and not always in predictable ways. The novelist Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool, The Risk Pool, Mohawk) told me once that he can't write at all when he's alone in a private room. He writes in diners and coffee shops, and always has. The proprietors of cafés are named on the acknowledgments pages of his novels.
When you work with a computer, the "interface" -- these days called the "graphical user interface," or GUI -- is the room you're in. Yet many people, software developers as well as users, can't quite bring themselves to believe in the fundamental importance of interface design. The interface is just the superficial, merely cosmetic "look" of things, isn't it? Were Nabokov with us today and writing with a computer (not to mention playing computer chess and maintaining his butterfly database), I suspect he would consider such "superficial" elements very important indeed. Lots of people do, of course, but somehow they remain in the minority. The art of software-interface design has been essentially dormant since the original Macintosh appeared thirteen years ago. What's more, most software is designed to reinforce what users already know, to facilitate users doing what they already know how to do, rather than to facilitate exploration and discovery.
One glowing -- literally glowing -- exception is the work of Kai Krause, a German-born visual artist and musician turned software designer who can safely be called an interface visionary. In fact, in the world of computer graphics, Krause is a living legend. Kai's Power Tools (KPT) -- Krause's plug-in software for Adobe Photoshop and similar programs -- is now standard equipment for any serious computer artist. His landscape-simulating product Bryce (named after Bryce Canyon) is an amazingly powerful tool for its modest price (about $170), and its images have already been seen in everything from print ads to movies -- and on lots of Web sites. (If you've browsed the Web you've probably seen the far-reaching influence of Kai Krause without knowing it.) And for about $50 the image-distorting Kai's Power Goo lets even a child apply jaw-dropping special effects to the family photo album (provided the photos are in digital form, of course).
All this software is authored by a team of engineers, naturally, and although Krause is not the lead programmer, he is the lead designer and guiding light of MetaTools, the company he co-founded with long-time business partner John Wilczak. MetaTools is one of the most forward-looking ventures in desktop digital imaging, and one of the most successful. In fact, the company seems on a rampage to become The Force in "visual computing," as they like to call it. MetaTools recently announced a slew of strategic maneuvers, including its intention to merge with Fractal Design (another major player in graphics software for desktop computers), the acquisition of Dive Labs (staffed by some of the orginal VRML people -- Virtual Reality Modeling Language being the 3-D language of the World Wide Web), and the acquisition of Real Time Geometry Corporation (RTG), a research and development company founded by a distinguished Russian physicist -- and now the Chief Scientist at MetaTools -- who specializes in quarks and other such phenomena. And just last week MetaTools acquired Specular International Ltd. of Amherst, Mass., makers of Infini-D, one of the leading high-end 3-D programs for personal computers. Talk about covering the waterfront! To its competitors, MetaTools must seem like the kick-boxing martial-arts warrior of graphics software, coming at them from everywhere at once.
We hear a lot of jive about "virtual reality," but Kai Krause is one of the few designers who really brings the spirit of virtuality to software tools. His 3-D interfaces seem nearly tactile, with elements that cast shadows and undergo lighting changes as you manipulate them with a mouse. This seeming physicality combines with Krause's ever-present whimsy to produce tools that are more like games or toys and encourage users to be irreverant and unafraid of unexpected results. That sounds like software for artists to me. (The KPT user's manual notes that Spheroid Designer may seem to resemble glass balls dropped into mud, but actually it's meant to be glass balls embedded in an "old stale brownie.")
Using a MetaTools product is rather like rubbing a magic lamp and having powerful genies come out to do startling things. Sometimes you can't get the genies to do the same thing twice; more often, you can't believe what the genies just did, and you run off to drag somebody back to your computer. Those genies consist of awesome mathematical engines and programming, but you never need to be aware of that. In this sense, Mr. Krause guides the development of ground-breaking software with a remarkable modesty, the visual flamboyance of his designs notwithstanding. A decade ago, even the military couldn't have bought the engineering in a typical MetaTools consumer product (and it would have required a supercomputer anyway), yet today the playful interfaces leave most users blissfully ignorant of the technology they're skating and squishing and sliding around on.
So far, Kai Krause's mission to re-envision software has been confined to the realm of graphics tools. Repeat: so far. He's not stopping there. He promises that someday he will cast his twinkling eye on standard productivity applications such as word processors and spreadsheets, and I for one can't wait. I hope to be the first beta-tester of "Kai's Fractal Fiction" (no, actually I hope to be called in early as a consultant). I've yearned for "Kai's Language Transformer" for years. And I'm dying to see the silly grin on the face of the man in the street when for about $50 each you can buy "Kai's Spreadsheet Goo," "Kai's Personal Finance Magic," "Kai's Flying Carpet Calendar," and "Kai's Intergalactic Browser."
Gullible travelers please note: MetaTools does not currently have "Kai's Fractal Fiction" or "Kai's Language Transformer" in development. Ditto for the other wonderful tools I've predicted. Please don't call MetaTools about them with your credit card ready. But do keep hoping and dreaming.
An e-mail exchange with Kai Krause
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.