Tag Archives: creative code

Hydra Tutorial For Live Coding Visuals

In my last post I wrote about the first session of SpacyCloud’s Live Twitch stream from two weeks ago. The twitch stream was an all day event where the first half of the day consisted of a variety of workshops around creative coding topics, while the second half featured performances from various audio visualization artists and creative coders. Unfortunately I could not attend all the events, but I wanted to write in detail about both the Hydra event and P5JS event. You can read the P5JS post here. Now let’s dive into some live coding visuals!

The Hydra tutorial on SpacyCloud was taught by Zach Krall, a graduate student at Parsons School of Design with an impressive portfolio of projects. Though I had been experimenting with creative coding since college and knew about Processing, the language that P5JS was ported from, I had never heard of Hydra before. Just the fact that it was something new peaked my interest, but when I saw the home page for the Hydra-editor I was pretty much sold. Every time you load Hydra, a different visualization appears on the screen, with the code that wrote to make it overlaid on top. You can copy and paste the code, so in a way each new visualization is like its own mini tutorial.

Zach Krall’s personal website

It turns out that all of the coding for Hydra happens in the browser, and the background of the entire browser window changes to display the product of your code. Personally I prefer this over the two panel system that most web coding editors use, because when it comes to visualizations you want to be able to see them in as large a display as possible. However I could see some people not liking this, because the code is a bit harder to read, even though it does have a background color applied.

Hydra was created by Olivia Jack who wanted to build a visualization engine that took its inspiration from analog televisions. It did that and a lot more, because with Hydra you can connect to other machines and each output your own video stream that can then be modified by others.

Probably the hardest thing about starting out with Hydra is wrapping your head around some of the paradigms, which are pretty different from your typical application. In Hydra, you typically start with a basic visual preset or texture, like noise, voronoi, or oscillation. Check out these basic visuals below. Note that while these screenshots are static, within Hydra all of these are moving visualizations.

A basic oscillation visualization is drawn to the browser with osc()
A basic voronoi visualization is drawn to the browser with voronoi()
A basic noise visualization is drawn to the browser with noise()

You can also pass values into the function to change it. For example, if I write noise(100) instead of just noise() the gray matter gets much smaller, like specks of dust rather than blobs. If you pass noise(100, 100) the specks of dust will start moving around the screen MUCH more quickly. The same can be said for voronoi and oscillation. First number defines the density of shapes, the second defines the speed of movement. Be careful passing in large numbers for the speed, it can be quite painful on the eyeballs.

In order to execute the code you need to hit Shift + Ctrl + Enter on the keyboard. You might have noticed the code inside the screenshots include a second function chained on called out() . This function is basically telling the browser to output everything in front of it in the chain. If you remove out() nothing will render to the browser and you will only see a black page.

We’ve covered voronoi, noise, and oscillation. There’s one more basic render and that is shape(). Drawing a shape in Hydra is simple enough. The number you pass into the shape() function defines the number of sides for the polygon. So, shape(3) is a triangle while shape(4) is a rectangle, and so on.

You can also specify how large each shape is and how blurred its edges are by passing in 2 more numbers into the function.

You might be wondering, what could one possibly do with a simple shape in the middle of the screen? That is hardly interesting to look at. I also thought it was a little bit odd that you couldn’t place multiple shapes or define that border and size of the shape like you can do in most creative coding languages. However, I was pleasantly surprised after some experimenting, as hopefully you will be too.

One of the easiest things to do is create a tile pattern with the shape. You can do this by chaining a repeat() function, where the numbers you pass into the function define how many times the shape is repeated.

If you write repeat(10,10) like in the screenshot above, you get the shape repeating ten times both in the vertical and horizontal directions. If you write repeat(10) then you will have the shape repeat ten times in the horizontal direction, but not vertical. This function is one of the geometry functions, which you can read more about in the documentation.

So how might you apply color to these shapes? If you were using voronoi, noise, or the other automatically generated textures, its very easy. You just chain a color() function where you pass 3 values corresponding to the amount of red, green, and blue.

A pure red oscillating texture

Because you cannot apply color directly to a shape, the workaround is to use a blending function with shape() and applying color within the blending function. For example, you can blend the red oscillator above with the rectangular tiles in the other screenshot.

Now you can see the rectangles are overlaid on top of the oscillating red texture. There are multiple blending functions, and each one has a different effect. I won’t go into detail on all of them because this post is getting lengthy and I am wary of the cognitive burden,

Suffice it to say there are 6 blending functions in total, called operators in the documentation. The other 5 are add, diff, layer, mask, and mult. If you’ve ever experimented with layer effects in Photoshop, some of these should sound familiar. Depending on the complexity of your visualization, these operators will sometimes output the same result. You are most likely to notice differences when using a range of color and texture.

Let’s take the our oscillator and jazz it up a bit. Rather than using the color() function to apply a simple red color, you can actually pass 3 values into the osc() function directly. The first still specifies the number of oscillating rows, while the second specifies the speed they move across the screen, and the third specifies the range of color. Lets say we use the diff() operator and also tweak our rectangles by making them a bit larger and blurrier. What might that look like?

Now we’re cooking with gas. Just a few extra functions and things are much more interesting. There are many variables we can tweak to experiment even with this relatively simple visualization. For example, what happens if we change the oscillator to a voronoi or a noise generator?

Alright, so it looks like we lost the cool colors but got a more interesting texture in return. Are there other ways to bring back color besides the ones I showed? Absolutely! The colorama() function which brings all sorts of psychedelic fun. It’s the last function I wanted to demonstrate because it can spice up pretty much any visualization, and is probably the quickest to get interesting results with.

live coding visual with shape function blended with colorama and voronoi

I hope by now you have the hydra-editor open in several tabs and have virtually lost interest in this post because you are too busy experimenting. Hydra is seriously one of the most absorbing and exciting creative coding tools I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and the goal of this post was to give you enough knowledge that you can hit the ground running.

Of course there is tons of material I couldn’t cover, and for that I want to leave you with a few references.

Hydra book is a very detailed guide that goes into pretty much every function Hydra has to offer, with lots of screenshots to help you along the way: https://naotohieda.com/blog/hydra-book/

Olivia Jack’s documentation is also nothing to shake a stick at, and has lots of coding examples that you can copy and paste to experiment with. There are also more Hydra tutorials listed here: https://github.com/ojack/hydra#Getting-Started

The Github repo includes a section with a whole list of resources which you can check out here: https://github.com/ojack/hydra/blob/master/examples/README.md

If its community you’re craving Hydra also has a facebook group with over 500 members: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1084288351771117

I hope you enjoyed getting your feet wet with live coding visuals. Good luck and happy creative coding!

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door” in paperback or Kindle now.

What it Means to be a Creative Coder

Programmers rarely agree on whether or not coding is a creative profession. My interest in coding always stemmed from what I could create with the code. Seeing an interesting visual result from my efforts is usually the most satisfying part. Most programmers are less concerned with how their app looks and more concerned with the functionality. Usually, as long as the app works the way it is supposed to, most programmers are satisfied.

Of course that is an overly simplified model. Programmers often care about how the code is written, whether it is reusable and easy to understand for other programmers. One could argue that deciding on which tools to use and how to organize the different parts of the code involve creativity as well. Creativity is a broad term and I’m not here to make a commentary about whether or not programming is creative. This post is rather about people who identify with the term creative coder. Namely, folks who got into coding because they are interested in how they can express themselves creatively with technology.

A beautiful procedural artwork made with Processing by Pierre Marzin. View the original and code here.

There are a lot of good examples of creative coders in some of my other blog posts, here and here. Nathalie Lawhead is one of my personal favorite creative coders. Their work lies at the intersection between games and interactive art. They draws a lot of their inspiration from old flash games and early net art. Games like What Remains of Edith Finch, which are sometimes called “walking simulators” by the gamer community for being primarily focused on storytelling can also fall into the category of creative coding.

Then there are folks who make all kind of interesting art with code on communities like Codepen. From unique loading screens to animated menus to scrolling backgrounds, these are also inherently creative. It’s hard to make a list of every kind creative coding out there because technology is constantly evolving. Tools like Processing and OpenFrameworks allow for especially dynamic and immersive art to be created, from moving and morphing fractals to particles replicating the flocking of birds or cell division, the sky is the limit for what kind of art creative coders can make.

I am a lot more passionate about programming when I am working on something like a game or interactive art project versus enterprise software. Tackling technical challenges can be fun occasionally but I am much more interested in the act of creation and the product I am creating. I am especially excited if the product I am making involves other creative aspects.

The house that you explore in the game What Remains of Edith Finch.

I think that is what differentiates creative coders from other types. What made them interested in coding was not the technical challenges or the logic puzzles but the excitement of creating something that is immersive and captivating. Creative coders may or may not be software engineers in their day job. Some are front end developers, fewer are back end developers. For me UI developer was especially attractive as a day job because it merges design and development. Even in these jobs, though, as I write about in another post, sometimes there is not as much creative expression as one might hope for.

That is the other thing that distinguishes creative coders. They always have that powerful longing for creative expression. Creative coders might also enjoy other things like drawing or music or writing. Personally I enjoy all of these things, and didn’t do any programming of my own for many years. Technically, I did tinker with web development in middle school but my first object-oriented programming code wasn’t written until college.

An astonishingly detailed artwork made purely with CSS by Ben Evans. View the original and code here.

Some creative coders have never even worked for a corporation in their lives. For instance, there are artists who started collaborating with technologists years into their career and discovered a new passion they didn’t know existed. They might have learned to code in their 30’s and used it to create generative art or experimental experiences. Frameworks like Processing have made coding a lot more approachable even for artists and folks who have traditionally felt ostracized from the world of code.

Unfortunately, being a creative coder can put you in a weird limbo between the world of programmers and the world of artists. I felt this very acutely in my career, as someone who graduated with a Visual Arts degree and then began working as a software developer.

Abstract art made with Processing by Takawo. See the original and code here.

On the programming side, there is still a lot of gatekeeping, especially at the corporate level that makes creative coders feel unwelcome and unwanted. Programming interviews are often designed to test your knowledge of algorithms that are typically taught in computer science classes. Unfortunately, since creative coders often come from non traditional backgrounds the chances that they are familiar with these algorithms is pretty small.

There are also negative stereotypes among some programmers about creative folks specifically that will put them at a disadvantage as well. Some programmers out there believe that you are either a logical person or a creative person, basically concluding if you are good at art you cannot write code and vice versa. Obviously, this is ridiculous, but those who believe it can be hard to persuade.

Particle generation made with Open Frameworks by Julian Vidal.

Sadly, these gatekeepers sometimes succeed in convincing people and so some of them never even try to experiment with coding. These same gatekeepers are usually also the kind that make it harder for folks minorities in tech to have their accomplishments recognized. Usually this means if you’re a minority and identify as a creative coder, the path to recognition and respect can be even steeper.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that gatekeepers in the programming world tend to look down on creative coders, there is a similar issue for these coders being recognized by the art community. First of all, the percentage of galleries that showcase generative art, immersive experiences, or experimental games is still very low compared to the galleries that showcase works of painting or sculpture. The few galleries that do, like Artechouse, can be extremely particular about who they choose to showcase. To be chosen for exhibition is akin to winning the lottery, probably even more difficult than landing a programming job at Google or Facebook.

One of the Miami exhibits at Artechouse from their Instagram page.

If you identify as a creative coder, you might be feeling a bit depressed after reading all of this. The thing is that regardless of how much gatekeeping or frustration creative coders face, they make some of the coolest projects on the internet. Once you make that first hypnotic generative art piece or that game that you’ve had in your head since you were 10, you won’t feel the same afterward. Ultimately, if you are a creative coder you know it’s so much fun that you would be doing it regardless.

Cover image by Masaki Yamabe


If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door” in paperback or Kindle now.