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Zach Lieberman and the technology that lets us breathe

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Zach Lieberman is an artist, but he prefers to think of himself as a researcher. “Artistic practice is a form of R&D for humanity.” While Zach writes software, the focus isn’t the technology. “You’re not conscious that you’re breathing.”


Zach Lieberman, photo by Kris Krg

His work, “drawn“, is a mix between painting and performance. He draws rough sketches, then interacts with them by touching the screen, making paintings that move and react to his touch. You can paint, then perform and play with what’s been built. The piece was inspired by a 1905 film – “The Enchanted Drawing” – which uses camera techniques to show a drawing coming off the paper, and by Helena Almaeda, who made a beautiful film in which she, otherwise in black and white, draws a blue dot, picks it up, eats it, and then cries blue tears.

The goals of much of Lieberman’s work is to create “the open mouth phenomenon”. When technologies make mouths drop open, “the open mouth is a pathway towards someone’s heart.”

A more recent project, called the iq font, is a project that combines advertising, typography and stunt driving. Using a new smartcar, the Toyota iq, Lieberman created a font that can be executed by a stunt driver and the little car. Lieberman’s software follows the car and can output the letter forms.

The project that brough him to Zolli’s attention was EyeWriter. Collaborating with Graffiti Research Labs and a slew of creative technologists, EyeWriter is a tool for oldschool graffiti writer, Tony Kwan, who’s paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease. It involves a low-cost eyetracking system, made using a $30 webcam and some Buddy Holly glasses. Once Kwan got used to the system and was able to draw tags using the movement of his pupils, the crew took a projector to the streets of LA, and started projecting the works on the side of buildings and highways. “He was in a hospital, on a ventilator, but he was tagging from his hospital room.”

The project has taken on a life of its own – a graffiti crew in Norway recently executed a piece Kwan drew using the system in their hometown. All the hardware and software have been open sourced, allowing other impaired people to draw, or tag. After Kwan got to use the system, he told Zach, “This was the first time I’ve drawn since 2003. It felt like taking a breath after being held underwater for five minutes.”

“That’s the power we have through technology – we can help people take a breath.”