SML Interview – Blind Computer Programmer Adam Puckett
Above is an edited recording of an interview at the Staunton Media Lab with Adam Puckett, a blind computer programmer studying at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Adam visited SML in early June to talk about his efforts at creating synthetic video and audio files. Adam creates videos by programming the pixels on the screen. He cannot “see” the videos he creates, yet he knows what they look like. Puckett is interviewed by SML director Steve O’Keefe. Audio engineer and editor is Coley Evans who, like Puckett, was born blind. A text transcript of the interview with links to sources follows. Thanks for supporting the Staunton Media Lab!
Transcript of Interview with Blind Computer Programmer Adam Puckett
Recorded at the Staunton Media Lab, June 3, 2015
Steve: This is Steve O’Keefe with the Staunton Media Lab, June third, 2015. My performance on this recording is copyright free. We’re very excited about our guest today, Adam Puckett.
Adam: My performance is also copyright free.
Steve: Adam, can you tell me, what is it that you are working on right now? Is it with your schooling, or separately from your schooling, or both?
Adam: It’s separate from the schooling. Concerning media specifically, I am teaching myself how to program audio and video in a DIY fashion.
Steve: Let me see if I have this right: You’re teaching yourself how to program video?
Steve: Can you see this video?
Adam: No. Not at all.
Steve: So you are completely blind?
Adam: That’s correct.
Steve: And at the same time you’re producing video?
Steve: And have you been blind from birth?
Adam: I’ve been blind since birth.
Steve: Wow… When you are programming, are you making a grid of the frame that people are seeing in your head and controlling the pixels? How is it that you conceptualize video?
Adam: I think you actually nailed it exactly. When I program, I do make a mental grid of the video. I also do that with the audio.
Steve: So you’re sort of manipulating these — what? — two-dimensional or three-dimensional canvases in your head?
Adam: Yes. In the case of video, they are two-dimensional canvases. In the case of audio, it’s just amplitude: Gain or Not Gain.
Steve: How long have you been noodling around with this sort of programming?
Adam: I started programming at the age of 13. When I was in the seventh grade, I taught myself HTML, CSS, Java Script, which are all three languages for building websites.
Steve: So now the programming that you’re working on deals with these synthetic sounds and programmatic video? Is that right?
Adam: Yes. Programmatic video and audio.
Steve: How long have you been messing around with programmatic video and audio?
Adam: I started to really dig down deep into it in the Spring of 2013. I was in a communications class at the school I attend. I attend Liberty University. I had a topic that I was supposed to write on, and I had this idea. I actually presented a demo, a little short video to that class. I got this idea for making a synthetic video. And that was what I wrote the paper on.
Steve: Have you made much progress with it?
Adam: I’ve made progress on some levels. I am able to create simple little animations. I’ve done more with the audio aspect of it, naturally, because I can hear the audio and I can hear what sounds good and what doesn’t.
Steve: Where do you think you’re heading with this work? Do you have an idea of that yet, or is it just raw knowledge of how to do these?
Adam: I guess on a small picture scale, right now, I want to get all of the raw knowledge that I can. I’m noticing that as I’m getting more and more interested in these things, I’m also finding myself actually getting more and more interested with things that are happening in real life — things that are happening all around me — because I want to learn how to artificially generate all those sounds — and all of the looks as well.
Steve: What is the advantage, then, to map this world of sound with synthetically generated tones?
Adam: The output from Hollywood in regard to how they produce computer-animated films is nowhere near, from what I’ve heard various people tell me, it’s nowhere near the color of the real world. What I’m trying to do is artificially generate with a computer as much photo-realistic synthetic material as possible.
Steve: If you’re successful at doing that, do you feel like it brings an expanded palette to the filmmaker? Is that what you’re talking about? Total control over every pixel at every moment?
Adam: Yes, that’s what I’m talking about: Total control over every pixel. Total control over every sound sample. You have a lot more opportunity for more dangerous-looking visual effects. You can do things that you could not hire stunt men for. We’re almost going back to the cartoon age, except…
Steve: Only with a lot better tools. [Laughs]
Steve: Do you see anybody out there who is a role model who’s doing work in this area? Either someone that you’re communicating with or somebody that you’re inspired by?
Adam: Well, unfortunately, that people that I’m inspired by are pretty much all dead.
Steve: Okay. And who might those be?
Adam: Those might be people like Conlon Nancarrow, who actually did compose these interesting pieces for the player piano.
Steve: I’ve heard of Nancarrow.
Steve: You say the people you’re inspired by are mostly passed-away.
Adam: Mostly passed-away or really old. Or not working on anything now.
Steve: So do you know people in this area now who are doing interesting and vital work in synthetic image generation?
Adam: In the field?
Steve: In the field, so to speak. If it is a field. I don’t even know if it is a field yet. I don’t even know if it has a name yet. What would you call all of this? Synthetic image or speech generation?
Adam: One name for it is “digital signal processing.” Another name for it is “creative coding.”
Steve: So, theoretically, wouldn’t it be possible then to take any phenomenon and render it as an image?
Adam: Yes. One benefit of being able to creatively code something under the current U.S. copyright law is that you actually have protection over that form of expression. It would be hard to consider a text file as creative. I guess in the future it will be hard to consider video and audio “creative,” unless some philosopher comes along and says that media has some sort of transcendent property, which I would agree with.
Steve: That it does have a transcendent property?
Adam: I think that media in certain respects does have a transcendent property, because there are so many different psychological tricks. You can make it seem as if someone else is controlling the media just by putting a delay between you pressing the button and a response. That’s how you can supposedly summon ghosts.
Adam: I know, I know. I don’t think you actually can do that, but it definitely feels like it.
Steve: Well, this has been a really fascinating conversation, Adam. I want to thank you for coming in on such short notice and letting us at the Staunton Media Lab have a go at it. Is there any way that people interested in your work can contact you?
Adam: Yes. You can email me at my Liberty University email address, which is apuckett5 at liberty dot edu.
Steve: I hope you’ll come back and join us again and fill us in how your vocation — if you want to call it that — is progressing.
Adam: Glad to be here. I really like the work that you’re trying to get off the ground. I’m really supportive of it.
Steve: Thanks very much.