Lifestyle programming

Ambient Design cranks code from the forests of west Auckland

Software design isn’t usually associated with a great lifestyle but Matthew Fox-Wilson and Andy Bearsley of Ambient Design in Bethells Beach, Auckland, have managed to combine the two.

The software house has as staff of four, and “there’s not a neighbour in sight in the forests of west Auckland,” says Fox-Wilson.

A little isolation works as great inspiration for the Ambient Design staff, and has seen it come up with products like ArtRage, a piece of software that Fox-Wilson says “focuses on instant 'sit down and splat' painting that lets you revel in being inaccurate.”

ArtRage was developed for the Tablet PC and has received funding from Microsoft. Ambient Design says the previous 1.0 release saw some 100,000 downloads and a number of Tablet PC manufacturers also bundle ArtRage with their products. Version 1.1, released in August, has been even more popular, with some 20 magazines around the world putting it on their cover CDs.

Computerworld interviewed Fox-Wilson about Tablet PCs, ArtRage, Bethells Beach and Ambient Design.

Can you tell us more about Ambient Design?

Ambient is basically Andy and myself, with one external developer who's on long term contract, and an IT/Getting Stuff Done employee who helps fill in the blanks while we work on code.

Andy and I were the engineers on ArtRage, and we come from a heavy graphics background writing 3D painting software and Photoshop filters. We worked for some time for MetaCreations (Kai's Power Tools, in particular) before founding Ambient and shifting to working for a variety of people.

We've been writing graphics software for around eight or nine years now I think.

Jay Templeton of Microsoft NZ organised some funding for you, right?

Yes, we approached him when the Tablet PC came out and said we had something we thought was appropriate for the platform. He worked to get us some funding to help us take ArtRage from its testbed stage to complete and released.

Apart from Microsoft, do you work with overseas companies?

Over the last few years we've done a fair bit of work for different companies overseas. We worked with Corel for some time, we've done a bit of work for Adobe, and Jasc has announced Paintshop Pro 9 which contains a fair bit of work from us. We've also worked with Digital Anarchy who do Photoshop filters, and have some currently NDA work going on for a company in Europe.

MetaCreations gave us a head start on it, we made friends, we got to know people, and being able to work in that kind of environment inspired us to really get out there and get some interesting stuff to do.

What sort of development tools do you use?

On Windows, Microsoft Visual Studio .NET. On Mac, Xcode. When it comes to interface work, I work mainly in Photoshop. Our toolkit (Goblin) is a set of code objects that we can use to allow the application to build on either platform without platform specific code, and that's a C++ library.

Are you writing for Macs as well?

Most of our stuff works cross platform. We have a toolkit we developed in-house that lets us write code that will compile on both. ArtRage is the exception because it contains some stuff we did specifically for Windows, though we'd love to spend some time taking it cross platform.

Presumably, writing things like Kai's and Photoshop filters require some heavy duty maths. Where did you pick that up from?

Andy deals mainly with that side of things. He's had a passion for graphics for years and taught himself. It's been great actually, he does things his own way and tends to think outside standard approaches to the maths. Thanks to that, we've been able to do some pretty high end stuff on lower end machines.

The Photoshop filters are great fun to do: small scale applications so we have lots of different challenges rather than focusing on one app for ages.

What's the most exciting new feature in ArtRage 1.1?

That really depends on who you are. Pro users have been asking for the ability to create larger canvases, and zoom in/out. We've added that.

For basic users, the ability to import an image and use it for painting (rather than tracing) will probably be exciting.

When you say "pro users", who are they?

ArtRage was originally designed to be a toy, but we've found that a large number of people who use paint software in a professional environment have been picking it up and wanting to use it. Their requirements were beyond our original scope, so they've been asking for specific features that we've had to examine for inclusion. There are people using it for production art, concept art, you name it, along with the prosumer (to coin a phrase) who's not a pro but enjoys using artistic software.

The really surprising thing is that it seems the simplicity of the app has been a thing of joy for pro users too. We've had professional artists and lecturers in art saying that the lack of digital tools and additional features has made the product far more usable. We didn't try to load it with minute tweaking tools, and because of that it's simpler and perhaps closer to traditional painting.

Are you surprised ArtRage has gone "pro" so to speak?

Very. While the app itself still really isn't a pro tool (there are a large number of features we'd want to add before calling it that), the pro users picking it up has been a real surprise. We aimed it squarely at fun use, though it was nice to think that pro users might get it too.

So what made you decide to have ArtRage as a free download?

It was a mixture of publicity and frustration. We'd tried to get a number of companies interested in the technology but for some reason they didn't seem to think it would be worth developing. So we did it all in house and decided to get it out there to as many people as possible by making it free. On the one hand we wanted everybody to be able to play, but I admit we did realise it would get more attention being free, and get our name out there.

I guess there's a bit of altruism in the mixture there too ... It was honestly a nice thought that we might be able to get it to as many people as possible and give them a fun toy.

Have you thought about open sourcing it?

While the product is free, we still need to eat and the technology behind it is something we have as an asset. To that end, we're not going to be making it open source, at least not right now.

Do you agree with Bill Gates that tablets will take over?

I think the idea's great. The Tablet PC is what drove us to finally turn ArtRage into a real product (it had existed in house for a number of years as a testbed). The Tablet interaction model feels more natural than a mouse and screen split, and I've found it really nice for taking notes and making quick sketches. The main holdover I can see from desktop machines is the monitor. I need pixel space to work in, so even if the tablet replaces the physical box by my desk I'm still going to want a desktop setup.

Do you ever feel isolated and out of touch there in Bethells?

Yes and no. On the one hand I like being out of the way, because it saves you from having to deal with office politics and lets you focus on what you're meant to be doing. We're out in the forests of west Auckland and there's not a neighbour in sight so we're really isolated in some ways and that's great for inspiration. On the other hand, it's harder to keep in touch with people and harder making new contacts and that can be a pain.

Since Telecom installed DSL at our local exchange it's been better, easier to keep in touch with people and pass files around, but we still tend to make trips overseas a fair bit to catch up.

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Tags DevelopmentArtRage

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