About Zach

I am full of marshmallow.

Twang… in Flash?!

Yep, this is a “Twang Player” prototype, built in Flash. There’s only one embedded song, a groggy rendition of the ditty from the first video:

(click to launch)

The next version of Twang will record & save songs (this is done), and share them in some capacity (a bit more complicated). So that’s where the Twang Player comes in. The Flash version looks like it wants to be touched & strummed. I need to revisit the design and convey that Twang Player is just a music box, you can’t compose anything in the browser! …Yet.

There are performance issues on some of my machines, too. This version uses Vector.<Number> objects to handle data, but it looks like ByteArray or even BitmapData structures are the way to go.

Brakebills, Twang, Stuff!

Oh em gee. So much to report.

First, do you know Lev Grossman? He’s an incredibly talented author who recently toured Portland. If you haven’t read his book The Magicians, then stop whatever you’re doing and procure a copy immediately. Without trying to spoil anything, the major college in the book is named the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Lev saw the Brakebills T-shirt that I designed for my sweetheart’s birthday present:

Long story short, my Brakebills shirts are now officially endorsed by the author! Please buy twenty of them, or thirty if the spirit moves you. Zazzle’s print quality is great. The colors are vivid, and the ink has survived many washings. Rabid fans are buying and even customizing them! I love the internet.

Lev blogged some of my other work, too (“the guy who does this has the enviably fake-sounding name of Zach Archer”). It’s true, I have an awesome pro wrestler name.

Second, my new iPhone app has landed in the App Store:

Twang is a handheld guitar. It’s easier to play than a real guitar, and is very expressive. Instead of using audio samples, Twang uses physical modelling techniques to create a more natural, dynamic sound. No two plucks are identical. Watch my grainy first video if you disbelieve.

In the next version of Twang, left-handed people will be able to switch Twang’s orientation, and serious musicians can dampen or mute strings with their fingers. And probably more! This version is already in development, and may be submitted in a week or two? Follow Control Z, Inc on Twitter if you have a ravenous thirst for updates!

Aquatic Sound Generator in Flash

Here’s something from the vaults. Aquasound was built with these requirements in mind:

  • Generate sounds that aquatic animals might make
  • Sounds can be “combined” somehow
  • Sounds can emote

This was never used in production. I wonder if I could turn this into something? Like a paid iPhone app? ;)

Double-click the envelopes to add/remove control points. Drag lines up & down to change their curviture. The best feature is the “Combine With” dropdown, which splices the current sound with your selection. Also the “Emote” menu will play sounds with different expression.

The audio algorithm is reverse-engineered from my beloved FS1R. I generated formants in two ways (toggle the “Tonal” checkbox to hear both), the “atonal” version is closer to ring modulation than actual formants. It’s more fun if you don’t understand what the controls are doing, but if you insist: Pitch controls the overall pitch of the sound. Freq controls the center frequency of the formant (like a bandpass filter). LFOFreq and LFOWeight control a low-frequency sine wave, which can be applied to other controls via their “___LFOAmt” curves. Amp is amplitude, Width is formant width (think: width of the bandpass filter), Skirt adds distortion. Each voice has two formant generators, check “Formant Active” to enable them.

May all your bloops and crackles be happy ones!

Reconstructing Images With Text

I was inspired by Roger Alsing’s supposed “genetic” image compression. It begs for further experimentation!

Here’s my second batch of image reconstruction using Times New Roman characters. The algorithm is a brute-force affair: New characters are colored & positioned randomly. Any characters that make the canvas look more like the original image are saved. And that’s about it. Oh, and the font sizes start large (5120pt) and end small (10pt), so that fine details have a chance of survival.

monarch_1 monarch_2 monarch_3 monarch_4 monarch_5 monarch_6 monarch_7 monarch_original

mona_original mona_reconstruction
Time lapse of the Mona Lisa reconstruction on YouTube, with silly music.

moth_0 moth_1 moth_2 moth_3 moth_4 moth_5 moth_6 moth_7 moth_original

My first batch uses a different algorithm. Each canvas allocates a certain quantity of letters, and progressively mutates them, trying to mimic the original image as closely as possible. This technique is more akin to image compression. This batch is still in progress, it’s very slow. I’ll post these when they’re ready!

Here Comes the Metal Mouth

My first iPhone app has been submitted to the app store for review! Metal Mouth is a text-to-speech synthesizer that mimics the talking devices of the 80’s (Speak & Spell, “Wizard needs food, badly”, etc.) The functionality is similar to my Synthetic Speech In Flash demo, but with many new features (male & female voices, auto-tune, pitch & time scratching) and a snappy interface with talking robots.

Hello, Doctor.

I'm inside your phone.

This took about 5 weeks to develop. Meanwhile, I’ve started another app, and I envision releasing Metal Mouth 2.0 in a few months, with more voices, and the ability to record audio.

Strange Attractors in Flash

Have you seen (or played) the demo for Polynomial, the space shooter? Quick! Watch the video:

I spent a couple hours generating strange attractors in Flash, just a simple 2D version for now. Click to play:

Here Be Strange Attractors

Click the black region to generate new polynomial coefficients and redraw. You will have to click many times to generate something interesting. That’s the nature of fractals, I’m afraid. Some coefficients are automatically thrown out if the drawing exceeds a certain size. Unfortunately, the inverse is not true: the code isn’t smart enough to trash any drawings that shrink to microscopic size.

I believe that you can stabilize any coefficients by scaling the values of each coefficient, gradually nudging them larger/smaller until the drawing is stable. I’ll try this when I get more time. I’ve been gung-ho on my first proper iPhone app, trying to finish it before Christmas! Stay tuned…

Also, here’s the source code for the strange attractor harness! Enjoy.

Flash 3D: A change of heart?

Yesterday, I posted a damning critique of Flash’s native 3D.

Today I noticed that if you right-click on yesterday’s SWF and show the redraw regions, you can see that it’s redrawing the contents of the entire stage, even though I put the scene in a scrollRect. Is it seriously rendering a scene that’s thousands of pixels wide before displaying it ?!?!?!? Oh, no. No they DIDN’T.

Today I ported the scene to the Away3D rendering engine. Here’s the result:

It’s beautiful, and provides access to low-level drawing routines, light sources, normal maps, … It was speedy at first, then slowed down considerably when I added the glowing floors. (Each glow is 16+ triangles right now, for various reasons including: I can’t render objects in my own custom order.) This makes yesterday’s version look performant, I’m reluctant to admit.

Possible next steps:

  • Reduce the native 3D rendering area, see if performance improves?
  • Grow beyond Flash, embrace the future and try Unity 3D?
  • Dump this project, finish that iPhone game I started, make a million dollars in 2 weeks?

Flash 3D makes me sad

I’ve been dabbling with Flash 10’s native 3D support. Try my engine:

Click to set the focus. Use the arrow keys to move. Touch blocks to illuminate.

I’m disappointed with two things:

1). How much time is required to create a 3D engine, even a grid-based one like mine. I’ve been wrestling this project for 4+ hours every day, for a week. I feel like I must be lagging behind, but there are ten thousand things that will go wrong when developing in 3D. The paradigm is uniquely punishing, there are always edge cases where some polygons aren’t drawn correctly. This project hasn’t been a joy.

Also:

2). Flash’s native 3D is not suited for a high-performance application like this one. It would be fine if I was only spinning a few DisplayObjects in space. However, the scene above displays up to 125 Bitmaps simultaneously. (Light all 25 bulbs (3 Bitmaps each), stand in the corner facing them, and the 25-segment walls.) 125 Bitmaps would be child’s play in OpenGL. But after you light a few blocks, Flash Player chokes pretty hard.

Here’s another version that uses a BlendMode on the lightbulbs. It looks great, but its performance is even less acceptable.

Here’s an early version that uses my own 3D computations, and the Graphics API. Also it has a limited field of view, which I widened for the latest builds. The performance is surprisingly high. I abandoned my custom 3D when I reached this point; drawing lines around each cube face was expensive, so I switched to Bitmaps, and the native 3D.

The cube faces are set to width & height of 100. However, the bitmaps are higher resolution, a 200×200 region is shown. They’re being downsampled at 100×100 before they’re rendered, not by my choice.

At runtime, I get periodic warnings like these:

Warning: 3D DisplayObject will not render. Its dimensions (8238, 1628) are too large to be drawn.

What?! How is this happening? I swear that any blocks behind the camera are being removed from the Stage. (Actually, this is difficult to verify. If I shrink the scene, Flash magically applies the 3D perspective with a weird projection, and distorts everything in Lovecraftian dimensions.) Please, Adobe, tell me that you’re not rendering the scene at 8000 pixels wide, then scaling it down to my 700×400 window, frame after frame?

Also note that you, the developer, are responsible for drawing the DisplayObjects in the correct depth order (farthest to nearest), Flash doesn’t handle it automatically. This is known as “2.5D“, and it’s wildly inconvenient.

So, I’m pretty disappointed with Flash 10’s native 3D. Even with my limited 3D experience, I dislike how it renders the scene (I’m not alone in this) and the performance is obviously sub-par. This technology will not bring 3D games to the web, it cannot.

I need to decide whether to endure its shortcomings for 4 more weeks, or if I should abandon this project altogether. There are moments when you realize you’ve outgrown something you used to love, and this may be one of mine.

Synthetic Speech in Flash

Recently, I learned about Linear Predictive Coding (“LPC”). This technique is used in classic arcade games (such as Gauntlet) and the Speak & Spell to synthesize speech.

Here’s my first attempt at LPC speech in Flash: (click & explore)

It’s great, except for one tiny problem: It sounds horrific. Can you feel the cold, robotic love? This voice will stalk your nightmares.

The phonemes were derived from an unrehearsed recording of my voice. I’m confident that it can be improved. Note that direct LPC encodings of my voice, such as this one, sound more acceptable.

EDIT: I made an iPhone version, “Metal Mouth”, with lots of features. Here it is on YouTube and the iTunes Store!

EDIT #2: The source code is available here.

Toaster Bro alpha: 10 days later

Did I mention my new game, “Toaster Bro”? Play Toaster Bro alpha version 1!

(You will need Flash Player 10.)

Ten days have elapsed since I shared this version with friends (who are unwittingly being used as play testers). It’s time for a “wrap-up” meeting, because I want to examine what went wrong/right, and instead of a meeting it’s a blog post:

Continue reading

8-bit NTSC artifacts using Pixel Bender

By request, here’s a quick ‘n dirty test harness, and sample code, for NTSC artifacts in the style of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES):

Click the animation to change scale & scroll speed.

Source code & .fla: nes_ntsc.zip

The .pbk code is not optimized yet. The code is fairly explicit, I tried to explain how it works in the comments. Blargg’s pages have better explanations tho.

The test harness lets you select two flavors of the effect. The numbers 8 and 12 denote the width of the lowpass window used for applying crosstalk. 12 is more processor-intensive, but will look “smoother”, which may not be what you want. The mathematics can be reduced to a few (long) lines, which should reduce processor overhead; I want to do this in the future. unic0rn left some nice comments suggesting more routes to optimization.

The filter still needs some tuning. Areas of solid (non-black) color have diagonal stripes in them. I believe that normalizing the strengths of the filters will fix this.

To be continued…

Tweetcoding: Round 1 Winners

Hooray, I’m a runner-up in the first Tweetcoding contest. My entry “Ghost Marquee” placed in the top 4. The code extracts certain bits from a string of jibberish, 6 bits at a time; when arranged on a grid, the bits form a message.

Also I had 2 notable mentions with Sea Sphere and 3D Sketch. I figured my entry The w00t Quilt would have placed, but perhaps I’m just easily hypnotized…

I think the strongest entry was Diagonal Snake by @tomee6, which is (not coincidentally) also one of the winners. Move the mouse to attract the snake; you lose when the snake crosses itself or touches you. There’s even a death animation. Amazing.

Here’s looking forward to round 2…