Welcome to our series on AUGMENTATION, where we will explore the real and fantastical ways that human beings enhance their realities and themselves. This week, we’re talking about Augmented Reality with Joshue Ott, a Director or Technology, visual artist, technical director at HUSH and purple belt in BJJ at Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Outsid/In: So I know you do a lot of different things. What would you say your title is?
Josh: Man. I should have practiced this. You're right. I do a lot of things. I'm a creative technologist. I'm an artist. I'm a programmer. I'm now a technical director at Hush Studios, so I coordinate technical teams. Basically, I solve technical problems.
Outsid/In: There we go. I like that.
Josh: So, I solve problems using technology. And I look for new ways of solving problems with technology as an artist. As an art practice, I'm interested in movement animation, I always called it ‘time-based’ media. Like sound and animation and kinetic moving robotics and that sort of thing. So, that also explains my personal company name, Interval Studios, because I like experimenting with time intervals.
Outsid/In: That's perfect and you're setting up the themes for this interview. So you’re doing my job for me. Since our theme is the word AUGMENTATION, let's start with your work in the Augmented Reality space. For those who don't know, how would you define the idea of Augmented Reality?
Josh: So the idea of augmented reality is that we’re taking the real world and adding to it. Augmenting it with data or graphics or sound or things that otherwise wouldn't exist in the real world. In the best case, that gives us new information and sometimes even alternative information to what we're seeing or hearing. So, the classic example of Augmented Reality in movies is a character puts on a set of glasses and looks at a person and a little title shows up next to the person's head, showing them that person's name.
Outsid/In: The ‘Terminator 2’ effect.
Josh: Yes, exactly. Yeah, let's do that. I mean, the question is, what's the oldest movie reference we can find for augmented reality? I haven't considered that: What's the first real use of Augmented Reality in a movie that everyone knows? It's not only Minority Report.
Outsid/In: There you go, that's a really good representation of it, but even that is like it's a computer thing. And what you’re talking about is enhancing reality, by adding to it or augmenting it. That’s really fascinating. But you seem to have approached it from an artistic perspective.
Josh: Yes. So the art project that I've been working on for the last 15 years is called SuperDraw. And it's a drawing program. And the reason it's called SuperDraw, is that it gives the artist superpowers by using a computer. So it in itself is kind of an augmented idea. I use it for performances, for performing with musicians and bands and orchestras and all kinds of different musical acts and contexts.
Outsid/In: Yeah, it should be noted that what you're creating in these contexts is created live.
Josh: Yeah, exactly. It's an improvised system. So, I'm making it up as I go. SuperDraw is a visual instrument. So it's like a violin but for art. So someone who is a visualist can go up on a stage and have the same kind of creative power that the violinist has in their own instrument. So when all these AR technologies started coming online, it was natural for me to adapt that system to put three-dimensional forms in space. And then I became completely obsessed with sound and synthesis. A I mentioned before, music is yet another time based medium, and I think it's a really special one. So I had this idea that you could generate three dimensional graphics and sound in space at the same time, so I started building these systems that synthesize both audio and visuals at the same time.
Outsid/In: Yeah, it's interesting to think about. Taking reality and injecting graphics and audio that wasn’t there. And then throwing in the fact that it's improvised. It's really fascinating and I can't help but think of the connection to Jiu Jitsu.
Josh: Yes, nice.
Outsid/In: Which is improvisational.
Josh: It is a very improvisational sport! I got into Jiu Jitsu when my daughter was eight or nine. She was really young, and she convinced me to try it. I remember the first time watching one of the more advanced classes and realizing that this isn't just a sport, and it's not just getting into shape. This is like moving kinetic sculpture. And it has incredible aesthetic qualities to it. The exchange of force in and of itself, is not even something that you can understand as a viewer. But when you're in it, it's like a dance of force that is kinetic and beautiful and kind of indescribable!
Outsid/In: Have you ever done a piece or performance based around people rolling?
Josh: Not yet! But, maybe I'm going to do it after bringing this idea up. I had the idea very early on, but there are some technical hurdles. Like you can't wire people up in any way with Jiu Jitsu.
Outsid/In: It's such a contact sport that any kind of tracking apparatus would get ripped off immediately right?
Josh: Yes, but the camera tracking is difficult too. It’s a solvable problem when you're talking about one person, but when you're talking about two bodies intertwined, the skeletal tracking has a hard time deciphering that. I mean, I know when I'm being tied in a knot by someone else, but it’s harder for a computer.
Josh: The other thing that's possible here is that SuperDraw is designed to really be an expressive instrument. I could interpret Jiu Jitsu the same way I interpret music. I could be looking at two people rolling and make my interpretation of that.
Outsid/In: And that’s something that would be beautiful no matter who was rolling, no matter the skill level.
Josh: I think that's another reason why Jiu Jitsu is so wonderful. It's a pretty inclusive sport. In my experience at least in our dojo, Jiu Jitsu has been incredibly inclusive and welcoming to anybody that's interested in it. And we have a huge variety of people from all kinds of different economic backgrounds and educational backgrounds and professional backgrounds and cultural backgrounds. And it's just so wonderful to make friends with all these people and train with them in these really intense ways and form new relationships.
Outsid/In: Yeah, it’s so humbling to be submitted by somebody who is 10 years younger and identifies as a different gender or is maybe way older than you are. It’s an equal opportunity. It's just communication.
Josh: One of our instructors said to me very early on was, when you start a conversation with someone, you don't start by shouting at them. You start by gently introducing yourself. So, you're gently testing the waters and your Jiu Jitsu should be the same way because it's a different form of communication. And I feel the same way about my art projects, which are forms of communication. Music is a form of communication. Dance is another form of communication. And I've worked with choreographers and dance companies in wonderful, really awesome ways that I'm really proud of. Finding these other languages to communicate with. It’s been super fun.
Outsid/In: Let's talk about the physical stuff. Your job involves a lot of computer time. A lot of sitting probably. How has Jiu Jitsu helped you there just physically?
Josh: Jiu Jitsu was such a fantastic break from sitting and looking at a computer all the time. It offers two things for me. It offers that way of doing something completely physical and building some athleticism. But there is also this incredible mental piece of that puzzle, it's like playing chess with your body. You have to be reacting and coming up with plans, but changing those plans as you go, because you're not just doing this alone, you're doing this with a partner. And as we said before, its communication. So learning the language in order to communicate is incredibly difficult, but it's hugely satisfying. You get those moments where you realize that you said a sentence, and the other person heard you and said a sentence back and you had an exchange. And it feels like you danced for a second or you participated in a poem.
Outsid/In: Back to creating together.
Josh: It’s really poetic. So, all of that to say that there is this mental aspect to Jiu Jitsu that I hadn't explained. I tend to worry about things and think constantly about a problem and chew on it for a long time. And Jiu Jitsu kind of gave me a path to cut that off and give myself a complete break for an hour. It gives you those skills in a really amazing way. So managing anxiety and fear and depression and all these like sort of mental issues that come up with people in their day to day lives. I think it really has an incredible impact on all of those things.
Outsid/In: Right. I am always ready to talk about those aspects of it because when I started, it was not clearly communicated to me that I was going to get a break from my overactive mind and some time to to just put my brain in a different place. I'm so glad I found that, but it was not really part of the sales pitch when I started. So whenever anybody talks to me about Jiu Jitsu and they start talking about fighting...
Josh: It's not what that is.
Outsid/In: No, if anything, I think the longer you do Jiu Jitsu, the less you want to fight anyone.
Josh: And I think you're exactly right. The older guys, the people that have done it the longest are the kindest, and they’re the most centered.
Outsid/In: Absolutely. So, bringing it back to Augmented Reality, what problems are you excited to solve using augmentation that you haven’t yet? Or what problems is the industry going to solve? Going forward?
Josh: Let me back up for a second and say that I believe augmented reality as a technology is one of the most important technologies that we are building as humans. I think on the theme of augmentation itself, technology itself is augmentation.
Outsid/In: That makes sense!
Josh: From the very idea of a hammer. A hammer is a piece of technology that augments the force that your arm can produce, and gives you this power to do a thing that you couldn't do before. I'm fond of saying that the goal of technology in general is to make us more human. To make us more of what we are. And to me that means making us more curious, making us more creative, more exploratory. I want to augment human creativity. I want to give people the powers to do things they couldn't do in the real world, or add to the real world in interesting, beautiful ways.
Outsid/In: That's a great one
Josh: I think we're basically in the teenage years in our use of technology. And unfortunately, we've crashed our parent’s car. We took it out and we weren't supposed to and we actually crashed it. That’s what social media is. But we're going to figure it out. Mom and Dad are going to be mad but we're eventually going to figure this out, we're going to move forward. And through our ingenuity and thinking and problem solving skills, we're going to make all of these things better. But we're missing an ‘Internet of Augmented Reality’ This is sometimes described as a Noosphere, basically an alternate data layer that everyone has access to and there's a billion problems to be solved in that statement alone. Like there's security issues and location issues. there's all kinds of interesting things to chew on. But, we need something like the internet for AR. That is open and anybody can alter it with all of the sort of issues that would entail.
Outsid/In: I really like that you're identifying a lot of new problems. But you are not deterred, and you seem willing to solve those problems and to me, because there's only two contexts that we have in our conversation, Augmentation and Jiu Jitsu, to me, this seems like a Jiu Jitsu mentality of being willing to solve the problem.
Josh: In Jiu Jitsu you need to be solutions oriented. You need to be constantly thinking about how you're going to solve this problem. And they teach that, it's a really nice piece of our training - that there might be a solution that you didn't really understand, or have to go about in a completely different way.
Outsid/In: The solution might be you getting tapped out.
Josh: Solution is tapping so that your arm doesn't break.
Outsid/In: Is there anything that we haven't covered in this conversation that you feel like needs to be said?
Josh: I don't know. I really hope to be on the mat with my training partners again soon. I miss Jiu Jitsu so much. I did want to actually say that on the theme of augmentation, these yoga apps, and high interval training apps are perfect examples of using technology to augment us as humans.
Outsid/In: Right. Wow.
Josh: These are tools that we're using to enable our own sort of fitness, and staying in shape. And we could do that without the phones and without these apps, but the apps are making it so much easier. I probably wouldn't be even remotely in shape and have been doing yoga and high interval training if I didn't have these apps.
Outsid/In: It was the right kind of augmentation for quarantine, people who aren’t able to roll.
Josh: And its really good because there are all these really interesting ways that technology augments us as humans. Augmented Reality is the sexy, cool thing to think about. But there's all these really interesting, fantastic ways that technology augments us that we take for granted right now.
Outsid/In: Right. Like we are augmenting our lives right now out of necessity. We're solving problems for ourselves.
Josh: Yeah. These little devices that we have are amazing. They're absolutely incredible. And if this pandemic happened 30 years ago, we would all be having very different experiences.
Outsid/In: So true. Haha well thank you for talking to me. Can’t wait to roll with you again.
Josh: Same, thanks man!