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Makers from Japan: An Interview with Masayuki Akamatsu

aka Made in Japan Interview: Masayuki Akamatsu

Masayuki Akamatsu has taught sound/media arts at IAMAS (International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences/Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences, Gifu, Japan) since 1997. He has exhibited multimedia electronic installations and performed throughout the world, and is also a member of The Breadboard Band, a group that performs electronic music made from circuits on solderless breadboards. His numerous installations incorporate sound, visual manipulations, and many other forms of mixed media. He has written several books on the Max/MSP/Jitter sound/visual processing program, and he has also written quite a few of his own objects for use with Max/MSP/Jitter. His software creations incorporate unconventional applications for interfacing existing hardware functions in unexpected ways (for example, using the Sudden Motion Sensor on a PowerBook as a way to control parameters in Max, interfacing the Wii Remote and iPhone with Max, etc.). Lately his work has focused on writing software applications that exploit the possibilities of the iPhone, a device that he sees as being an important step in the evolution of computing. In Made in Japan Vol. 1 we showcased his ever-growing collection of iPhone apps, and this week Mr. Akamatsu was gracious enough to agree to an interview, so the following interview was conducted via email and translated from Japanese.
A little bit about your history, I noticed on your resume that after graduating from college you worked for quite a while with the Kobe City government. How did you start experimenting with using technology to create music? Do you play any “normal” instruments?

Ever since high school I had been using tape recorders and early synthesizers to make electronic music. But that was mostly just for fun, I never thought of being a professional musician. After that, I bought a computer in college and started programming, and making music that probably wouldn’t be considered “music” in the traditional sense. I have a piano and a guitar right here in front of me, but I’ve never performed with them. I hate practicing, so I probably won’t ever really be able to play them in the future, as I believe that physical ability is essential, and that is becoming more and more apparent.

How did The Breadboard Band come about? What is exciting to you about making sound in this way? Although most of your formal work seems to involve software manipulation of consumer devices, do you have a background in electronics and making hardware?

At IAMAS (International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences/Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences, Gifu, Japan) where I teach, there is a project underway called PDP (Programmable Device Project), and it was through that that The Breadboard Band was born. I am not personally very knowledgeable about hardware, I just kind of explore interesting phenomena by groping around with my hands while destroying a few circuits. The other members are more knowledgeable about electrical circuit design and construction, so I sometimes have them make things for me. One objective of this band is to break through the limits of commercial music hardware. In terms of electrical engineering, it’s usually a pretty disastrous affair, but you can’t achieve the appeal of primitive, violent music in any other way.

Many of your current projects are for the iPhone. What interests you about the iPhone as a development platform? Will the iPhone ever become usable in Japan? Doesn’t Japan have more advanced cell phones already?

The computer era is almost over. Or at least desktop-style and laptop-style computers will no longer be used by ordinary people. As a final expression (or application) of this, devices such as the iPhone will become mainstream. (The future) will be a world of wearable computing and ubiquitous computing.

The appeal of the iPhone to me is that it presents a unified global view, there is no “waste” (the elimination of “waste” or muda is a national obsession in Japan) in its hardware design, and that its applications are sophisticated.

The cell phones in Japan have a lot of features, but there’s so much unnecessary and wasteful hardware packed into them, and the software is like a labyrinth nightmare. The GUIs are purely decorative, there’s no meaningfulness or unity, and nobody can really use them. It’s clear that in terms of evolution they are at a dead end, and it’s widely known that they have no competitive power at the international level. If the iPhone doesn’t sell well in Japan amidst these conditions, I don’t think there’s much future for Japan. I really hope that the communications carriers here in Japan don’t do anything stupid. When the iPhone goes on sale here in Japan, I would like for it to at least have the same level of functionality and a similar pricing plan as it does in the United States, but I’m worried about restrictions and restraints from the communications carriers here in Japan. It may seem unbelievable, but there have been cases of this in the past.

You have done some of your interactive installations using the Gainer interface from Japan. As you may be aware, the Arduino device is very popular here in the United States and in Europe. Both devices have a similar purpose and seem to be guided by similar philosophies (open source, designed to be simple enough to be used by artists, musicians who don’t have an extensive background in electronics). Can you comment on the differences between using Gainer and using Arduino? What do you look for in a these sorts of interfaces?

Just like The Breadboard Band, Gainer came out as the result of PDP research activities here at IAMAS. Gainer is relatively simple and consideration has been taken so that it can be easy for beginners to use, and that it can be interfaced with Max/MSP, Processing, and Flash. That might be a result of the Japanese sense of attentiveness (or “delicate consideration”). I only have experience using the Arduino interface on a trial basis, but its small size and Bluetooth-capable variations are certainly appealing.

(In terms of what I look for in an interface) on one hand, the difficult thing with any interface is that when you use any sensor or motor for the first time, you have to design the peripheral circuits yourself. This might be as simple as adding a resistor, but if there is some kind of solution that is required to get to the final step, then I think that this tries the user’s patience . Also, for physical interfaces I would like to see a more solid development environment, not so much in terms of the interface, but in terms of making things work as standalone devices.

Japan is of course a very technologically advanced country, but what can you say about Japanese people’s relationship with their electronic products? Do they think of them as disposable products? Of course not everyone will try to hack their cell phones, but do you see a growing population in Japan that is interested in proactively hacking and messing with their stuff?

This depends on the generation, but I think that in particular young people in Japan for most part think of electronic devices as being disposable. The pace of consumption and greed is pretty astonishing, and they probably aren’t even aware of it consciously. However, there is no shortage of the sort of “maniac” people who embody the representation of “otaku” culture in Japan. When you consider that here in Japan we live in an environment where we have electronics parts specialty stores in places like Akihabara and craft-oriented department stores like Tokyu Hands that are available close by, then yes, I think you could say that this type of environment is unique to Japan. In that sense, Japan could be considered a paradise for creativity and hacking.

You have written quite a few objects for Max/MSP, the most notable being your object that interfaces the Wii Remote with Max/MSP. The Wii Remote has been used widely as a controller for many things other than the Wii, and has been widely heralded as a “breakthrough device” in terms of its hackability. Do you think that there will be more products coming out that can be used for things other than their specifically intended purposes? Do you think that the success of the Wii Remote will lead to a change in design tendencies (i.e. adding functionality that can be used for different purposes, or like products such as Roomba or Robosapien, in which the companies that produce them have encouraged hacking)?

First off, with the iPhone, Wii, Roomba, etc., I think it’s important to note that these products are well-made in the first place. If it’s a good product, then the product also has an advantage in that it can be made cheaply through the efficiency of high-volume mass production. In the case of the Wii Remote, in addition to having a lot of features, its price was such that people felt free to try it out, and as a result it was widely noticed by a lot of people. Conversely, gadgets that from the onset have been open source and hackable have not been as big of a success as the Wii Remote. The sole fact that something is “open” is not what’s important, there has to be some kind of attraction that makes a thing worth hacking in the first place.

As the number of features in home appliances increases, usability is steadily getting worse. Even though only 10% of all the functions actually get used, it’s usually the case that they don’t do anything even a little bit different. No matter how much they are improved, the functions and user interfaces that the engineers and designers for these companies come up with cannot necessarily meet everyone’s desires. Because of that, I would like to see companies concentrating on the devices themselves and their original purposes, and to prioritize ease-of-use. Also, I think it would be wonderful if open communication protocols and APIs were maintained for the purpose of adding functionality. That sort of depth should be desired in today’s products. Of course, the Wii and the iPhone’s success is related to the fact that they achieved this depth. This may just be my own little delusion, but I think that Apple and Nintendo may well have intentionally “opened the back door” to these products.

I know that you have a written several books on Max/MSP and that you are quite knowledgeable with it, but what do you think of PureData (the open source “cousin” of Max/MSP)? The UI of PD is of course more primitive than that of Max, but have you ever had the chance to use it?

The Breadboard Band has used the iPod Linux port of PureData for performances. Because PureData is open source and portable, it’s quite suitable for that type of purpose. However, because Max/MSP is overwhelmingly better in terms of function, extendability, etc., I don’t think I would ever use PureData, if it’s something that I can already do in Max/MSP.

What are your feelings about the upcoming release of Max/MSP version 5? It seems like it will be much easier to design better-looking user interfaces, but aside from that, are there any particular new functions that you are interested in?

Based on looking at the preview movies that have been released, I don’t think that the pastel-style graphic design is any better. I think that Cycling ’74 needs to put more effort into that area. In one regard, I am hoping that it becomes more complete as a programming language (for example, the full-scale implementation of attributes in Max, being able to easily use the Attribute Editor, etc.). I would like to see a fast infrastructure that can respond to higher-level requests while still maintaining the characteristic of being easy for beginners to use. I am also interested in seeing how things like time processing and the debugging function will be handled. Also, Max5 will be Unicode-compatible, so it should be able to handle Japanese and other languages without any trouble. You might not believe it, but here in Japan we have only been able to use our own language in a pretty limited capacity with previous versions of Max.

There you have it, the words of a Japanese hacker and visionary creative force. We look forward to seeing what Mr. Akamatsu comes up with in the future, with The Breadboard Band, with his Max/MSP work, with his installations and performances, and with his pursuits in unleashing the potential of the iPhone. Thanks for the interview!

-MD


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