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Internet of Things Expert: Zachary Lieberman

One of the best aspects of playing a role in the technology industry is getting to meet the innovative leaders who are making things happen. That’s why we bring you this monthly series: Internet of Things Experts. These are the people that inspire and motivate us everyday, and we hope they’ll do the same for you. Last month, we interviewed Rob van Kranenburg. Today, we bring you Zachary Lieberman.

Zachary Lieberman’s work uses technology in a playful way to explore the nature of communication and the delicate boundary between the visible and the invisible. He creates performances, installations and works that investigate gestural input, augmentation of the body and kinetic response.

Zach has created a number of installations through his interactive collective, YesYesNo. In addition to making artistic projects, he is co-creator of openFrameworks, an open source C++ framework for creative coding. He also teaches at Parsons School of Design.

YesYesNo work includes a range of projects from small scale performances, installations and workshops to much larger scale projects for companies like Sony. To create such installations, Zach obviously has a passion for using technology for art. We asked where that passion stems from.

He’s always been interested in art and actually studied painting. “Like all college students, I eventually graduated and had to find a job. At the time, everyone was talking about Web design and it seemed like a great avenue.” When the economy took a downturn, Zach had free time at work. He put that time to use by learning how to program. “I got excited about programming and animation,” Zach said. ”You can learn anything you want to through books.” In fact, Zach was a completely self-taught programmer until he attended grad school.

While it’s remarkable that Zach found his way into programming by books, it’s even more exceptional in the way he pairs his technical knowledge with creativity– a creativity so substantial that Zach was named one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People” in 2010.

Zach explained that events, talks and going to museums act as a source of creativity. As he put it, “it’s all about research and exploring– experience what’s out there for inspiration. Go to the bookstore and get magazines that show you things you never would have otherwise been exposed to.”

“When it comes to inspiration, your input is your output.”

Collaboration is also important to Zach, he explained that working with people and sharing resources is a key source of inspiration. “Stuff works the best when you work together.” He also mentioned the importance of working with people different than yourself. For instance, Zach has worked with a magician. His work has appeared in numerous exhibitions around the world, including Ars Electronica, Futuresonic, CeBIT and the Offf Festival. His current collaborative project, Connecting Light, may be his most impressive yet.

Connecting Light is a major art installation for the London 2012 Festival in celebration of the 2012 Olympics. On August 31-September 1, the installation will span the length of 73 mile-long Hadrian’s Wall across the north of England, one of the most significant structures from the Roman Empire.

Using a series of tethered balloons lit by internal LED lights, the installation will become a line of pulsating colors. The changing colors will use the iDigi Device Cloud along with over 400 Digi Programmable XBees and around 20 ConnectPort X4 gateways to respond to text messages sent across the wall by audience members.

Zach was approached by the London organizational committee for the Olympic games. He was tasked to respond to Hadrian’s wall with a project that would engage people who are both physically there and who are watching remotely. When Zach went to London to visit the wall, he realized a very symbolic connection between the wall and the Olympics– the wall representing what was once a border and the Olympics being an extension of borders. He responded by creating a communications infrastructure that would allow people, anywhere to send messages along the wall.

Zach found that Digi products would be the perfect fit, and he believes there’s something magical about radio. Not only will people be able to interact with the wall, the pure scale of the project is something that Zach explained does not happen often. His hope for the project is that as many people as possible will send communication along the wall. ”It will be interesting to see what people write and what language comes out of it. Our hope is that the messages will have meaning that evoke feelings nationwide. We have communication all around us, but we don’t have ways of visualizing it. This project will make that journey visible.” Those at home will be able to send messages and follow via a live web stream.

Zach’s advice to others who want to create at the intersection of art and technology is to focus on the poetic gesture. “It’s easy to get excited about the tech and nerdy details, I know I do,” Zach admitted. ”Find creative and strange ways of using technology, we have all of these devices that we live with, take anything you have and find what the beauty or unexpected thing is.”

Zach encourages those who want to practice art and technology to think about not answering questions but asking them.

An exercise that Zach suggests to his students is to go to the bookstore and visit the technology section. Look at what’s there and then try to connect the technology section to the other sections of the bookstore. For instance, how can that book on Javascript be connected to ceramics? How about Python and poetry? Make the connection.

Zach also encourages others to leverage communities and open source toolkits, including the Python framework that is used in our ConnectPort products. Of course, he’s an advocate of his own openFrameworks infrastructure, open hardware, and sites like Make and Instructables. “Also, find the vocal hackerspaces. Have fun and learn.”

You can learn even more about Zach and project collaborators on thesystemis.

We here at Digi are extremely excited to be helping Zach design and build the Connecting Light project. It’s a delight to have our hardware and professional services being employed in such an innovative and inspirational way. It’s also a terrific example of how a large scale and highly customized wireless network can be rapidly designed and built with help from the experts. Keep an eye on the iDigi blog for more updates on Zach’s latest project, Connecting Light.

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