On the Santa Barbara talk by Kai Krause on April 24, 1996

Kai is the designer of the Kai Power Tools (KPT) series of image manipulation programs from MetaTools. The company recently moved to Carpinteria (near Santa Barbara) and Kai gave this talk to welcome himself to his new home town.

The Point of the Talk
The talk was meant to convey to the nontechnical members of the audience what is so great about modern user interfaces as exemplified by, you guessed it, KPT. Kai is tall and thin and full of energy, delivering a continuous stream of words on an assortment of interrelated topics, all centered on how computers can work if creatively programmed. Kai's favorite gesture is to sway back, point at a nonstandard and clever interface mechanism on the screen, and gleefully proclaim, "it isn't supposed to work that way!"

The Demos
Kai gave some demos; this was interesting to watch because he had a programmer-type on the stage as his assistant at the computer. Every time the assistant did something he made himself look like a fumble-fingered idiot, and the program being demoed like a confusing mass of unintuitive menus and buttons.
    Then Kai would take over (with nary a break in his rapid-fire monologue) and the program would suddenly sparkle and dance. Careful observation revealed the sad fact that the fumble-fingered assistant was a regular guy, using the program about like one of us would; and Kai is a demo genius, who has an assortment of demo-tested scripts at his fingertips that are each guaranteed to look good and to make a sound-bite-like crowd-pleasing point. In other words, Kai is superb at giving demos.
    In addition to the newest version of KPT, Kai showed some forthcoming products. One is Kai Power Goo, a program for pushing around sections of an image as if it were made of modelling clay. As Kai says, his goal is to get that sort of person who sits around naked at 3am gooing up images to intone, "cool." I guess that's his view of the ultimate expression of the creative art.
    Another forthcoming product is Kai's sound editor. This has a built in spectrogram, a real-time spectrograph, and other visual sound representations. Another product is a object (rather than pixel) painting program, with unlimited undo and unusual manipulation capabilities. What can I say; they were cool even with my clothes on.

The Interfaces
Kai has certain fundamental ideas running through the user interfaces of all his products. First, every control is a work of art, rather than the usually functionally-obvious menu entry or button. He likes tiny spheres that float over the background (with shadows), fading out when that part of the image is modified and fading back in (over 1/3 second of so) when the cursor comes seeking in that area. He likes to arrange controls in an arc around the screen perimeter, rather than collecting them into small control areas like toolbars.
    A new interface idea in the spectrogram tool is of a menu hiding off-screen. Small green bars appear on the right side of the screen, which slide out like drawers when the cursor touches them. A click causes them to animate to the top of the screen, while activating that particular mode of operation. Not a brand-new idea, but it saves screen space for better looking stuff than menus, and it is fun.
    But that's not to say they're completely unintuitive. His spheroid designer tool uses little spheroids controls arranged around the spheroid being built. The control spheres have subtle shading differences that indicate what they each do: the one controlling shading is shaded; the one controlling specular lighting shows a bright spot; and so forth. Where subtle cues can be provided within the beauty of the overall presentation, Kai provides them.
    The result is that his tools are a visual delight, great fun to push and prod to see how they respond, but aren't exactly easy to use. Still, there's no doubt that in his market, the freedom from restraints of his interfaces gives the user extra creative impetus. And when one works within a single product all day long the visual beauty is appreciated, and first-time-user ease of use becomes a lower priority than long term staying power.
    All in all, Kai's interfaces really are excellent.

The Concepts
Beyond the interfaces, KPT shows good use of concepts. In fact, one of the key attractions of these programs are their smooth blend of enticing interface and underlying powerful concept. A concept that's not all that powerful is made more so through snappy interface design (e.g., KPT's image enhancement algorithms), and a feature that is super powerful is simplified to the point of usability the same way (e.g., Bryce). The goal in all cases is to put the power of the computer firmly in the user's hands.
    It's worth mentioning how Bryce works, as an example of a complex function made easy as pie: the screen shows both a 2-d image and a 3-d view of a plot of terrain, with an artistic spray of control spheres sprinkled about. The brightness of a pixel in the 2-d image controls the height of the corresponding point in the terrain: dark is low and bright is high. Various painting and filtering tools applied to the 2-d image translate in real time into the terrain view. The overall effect is to make a complex 3-d creative activity as easy and fun as one could wish.
    A design concept seen throughout KPT is that of automatic generation of variations. Kai understands the idea of using the computer to generate variations on ideas at the flick of the mouse, then to allow the user to select the best fruit of that labor. For instance, the convolver tool shows a 2-d grid of variations, all instantly generated according to the current user-chosen parameters. With a few clicks and shoves, one can navigate an immensely complicated choice space to home in unerringly on the desired result.
    Mutations and genetic algorithms are another example of this automatic generation philosophy. The KPT texture editor allows mixing and matching of textures generated from "genes", so that combinations, variations and automatic exploration of possibilities is possible. You can "breed" new textures and save away the best strains for future use. Very fun, very sophisticated underlying algorithms, and very effective use of CPU power.

Substantive changes:
    April 25, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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