In class we briefly discussed “Text Rain,” an interactive installation developed by Camile Utterback and Romy Achituv in 1999 (check out Utterback’s website. She has some amazing new projects). The installation allows for users to directly interact with falling text being projected on a screen. Text lands on the bodies of users and can be dynamically toyed with in a variety of seemingly magical ways. Letters naturally fall and float together to form words and phrases, creating an effect that is unexpectedly stunning even 15 years after its release. My initial reaction was one of bewilderment: “You mean to tell me this has existed since I was seven years old and I’m just now hearing about it?!” The tech seemed too cool, too naturally awesome to not become some sort of widely-used platform. But there I sat, reading about 15 year old technology for the first time. What about Text Rain prevented it from becoming more widely used? Was it ahead of its time? Was it the cost and space requirements of installation? Or is Text Rain simply a wonderful example of intuitive, creative technology that has little practical application beyond gimmickry?
I could take the easy route and answer “yes” to all of these questions, but it’s worth a bit of a look. No doubt, a major limiting factor of Text Rain was the at-the-time advanced technology requirements. If it seems like magic now, just imagine what strings were pulled to get this thing running back then. This is an entire installation after all, taking up quite a bit of space and energy to run. Especially in 1999, the use of such a project was always going to be a highly limited, special circumstances affair. Why though, with the advent of consumer-priced, full-body recognition technology such as Xbox’s “Kinect” device, have we not seen a return of Text Rain? Some guy on Youtube made it work, so the tech limitations are all but out of the equation at this point.
Without being able to personally try the program, I can only speculate as to its creative potential, but it seems that Text Rain was likely developed as a tech demonstration rather than an alternative creative outlet. The description of the installation claims that “’Reading’ the phrases in the Text Rain installation becomes a physical as well as a cerebral endeavor.” Once I reall started to imagine Text Rain’s novelty wearing off, my fantasies of possibility diminished. Who the hell wants to really, actually read a story in such a fashion? More importantly, who the hell would make the stories? There are only so many new creative avenues opened from Text Rain, and a handful of them lost, so who would really want to work with this?
Text Rain, if nothing else, is an intriguing example of art done differently, though perhaps only for difference’s sake. I do not believe the idea was born from the thought “man if only I could make text fall from the sky, then I could tell my story,” but rather “text falling from the sky onto people looks cool as shit. Let’s make something out of it.”