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Next List: Interactive Artist Scott Snibbe

Aired December 18, 2011 - 14:00   ET



DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Interactive artist Scott Snibbe designed his first app back in the 1990s, almost 20 years before the first smartphone even existed. Today, he's blazing a trail in interactive full body experiences. Working with some of the biggest names in entertainment, he transports his audiences into wholly immersive worlds of interactivity, ones that command all of your senses.

So, get ready. Over the next half hour, we're going to explore the future of Scott Snibbe's creation - a future filled with magic.

This is THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

SCOTT SNIBBE, INTERACTIVE ARTIST: I wish there was a word that was something like an interactivist. You know, writers can sell books and scripts and things like that. Musicians can sell songs and albums. Filmmakers can sell films and movie tickets. But people who make interactive stuff, the only place that we've talked about that is either in game development or in art.

Hi. I'm Scott Snibbe. I'm an interactive artist, and I'm the founder of Snibbe Interactive and Scott Snibbe studio.

So I have two businesses here. Snibbe Interactive creates interactive installations and experiences that use your whole body as the - as the input and the output. You don't need a pen, a stylist or even your finger touching something. You just move into space and it starts responding to you, and it's really a form of magic. It's like bringing - literally like bringing your dreams to life.

Procter & Gamble used our products at the Shanghai Expo. We had a - a pretty cool exhibit where they were trying to show all these products about the body. You know, they make a lot of things for your body.

We have a project we're doing with Coca-Cola, for example, and they have a kiosk, you know, that they're putting in stores and, you know, it lets you play and have kind of like Coke pouring all over your - all over your body.

We also work with a lot of museums, like the Museum of Science and Industry, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the London Science Museum. Also a lot of strange - strange places, what I call now weird museums, you know, that don't fit a normal model, like Science Fiction Museum, the Music Museum in Seattle. Probably the biggest like value proposition of our company is that there's less and less reason for people to go out anywhere and do anything because they can buy everything on the Internet, they can watch movies on a huge screen at home, they can play video games. So we offer experiences that still aren't at home and essentially will never be at home because they're huge. They're things that are 14 feet, 20 feet wide. Or they're things that require social interaction, or even benefit from strangers interacting with each other in space.

Scott Snibbe Studio is a smaller organization that focuses on a smaller form of interactivity, interactivity underneath your fingertips, like on iPads and devices like that, where it's another way of getting immersed in an interactive world.

I used to joke that it's not a non-profit, it's a no profit. (INAUDIBLE) it's my art studio, and we do things like art commissions, like we did an amazing commission at LAX, a 58 monitor installation that shows people this kind of fantasy of what could happen in an airport. It begins with people just walking, walking, walking, but then it starts to turn into this fantasy where people break up into dance and it becomes like a musical. And people are dancing with each other.

You know, you could have a kind of Lollapalooza in an airport, with all those people there. It could be a huge party. But instead it's a huge bummer. Everybody is scared, tired, upset, being (ph) look slightly molested, you know?

So, anyway, that's what my studio did up to about 18 months ago. And then, the iPad came out and that really flipped me out.

A big part of my art, I had abandoned because I couldn't find a way to distribute it. So a - a lot of my artwork was art on a screen. It's called like an interactive painting or an interactive movie that you would touch and something would happen, like - like manipulating stars, you know, drawing with stars, making music with bubbles, things like that.

All of a sudden, there was a direct channel to individual human beings, to offer them something seemingly absurd and useless and yet that would give them intense amounts of joy and pleasure. You know, before the iPad, I used to joke that I made useless programs. But they're as useless as a song, a movie, a story, you know, something like that. And, all of a sudden, with the iPad, I could just go directly to people and say, check this thing out.

It doesn't even - we don't even have to label what it is. It's just called Gravilux. It's called Bubble Harp. See if you like it and, you know, all of a sudden they did.

So, my dream for the company is ultimately to create like feature length experiences that are interactive. I began it as an art form and I've made, you know, pieces that are very popular as art. But ultimately, you know, this - this medium is just like the evolution from kind of experimental films to TV commercials to short films to features.

I see the same thing in this form of interactivity where, you know, we work at the level of kind of experimental film, short film, commercial, with interactivity. But we started to move into features now as we're working with, you know, people like James Cameron, people like Bjork. That's like the highest, highest pinnacle of this medium, and that's where I'd like to be, you know, in five to 10 years is creating a feature.




SNIBBE: If people were just to take one idea away from - from my work, I think the most valuable idea is that of interdependence, is that I'm not - I'm not the one that's responsible for all my success. I have to thank everybody else in the world and everything else in the universe that actually culminates in my existence.

That's an augmentation of emptiness, right? Emptiness is like not really emptiness. It's that everything is interdependent.

My parents are from New York City, and they're part of the ultra art scene, you know, then, going to Andy Warhol parties, things like that. But they left for the country really early on and we grew up in a beach town called Scituate, and it was this amazing contradictory existence, where we had incredible nature, beaches, forests, a huge garden, running around naked outside.

And then, inside, it was ultramodern, and my parents had a - a giant plastics workshop that we were free to run wild in and make our own stuff. So it was this perfect combination of nature and technology that we grew up with.

The other thing that is a bit of a strange thing is that we were raised as Christian Scientists. That's a religion in which you don't go to the doctor. That's what it's best known for, is that you believe in your ability to heal yourself.

I'm not a Christian scientist any longer, but what that meant is our parents weren't afraid of us getting hurt, which is really fun for a kid. It's - it's scary for your average parent, but, you know, not for my parents.

So, my parents, they fully trained us in how to use a complete industrial shop, you know, like drill press to - from drill press to table saw, you know? I mean, can you imagine using a table saw?

When I was 10 years old, my - I was in this special group of kids, like a special program in - in middle school, and they took us one day to this room where they had like six Apple computers, Apple II computers. And I remember, when I walked into that room and I saw just the quality of the color, it was just like orange circles, like a blue square, and I just thought, that is what I want to do with my life. I want to make interactive computer graphics, and so I studied computer graphics, film and art. I got degrees - I got three degrees in all those things, a Masters degree in computer science.

At the time, I was thinking of some way of combining film with technology, although I didn't really understand what it could be. So, my first job was at Adobe, and we made a product called After Effects, which is for special effects software. They use it in everything now. They used it, everything from, you know, "Star Wars" to like a BMW commercial.

That went really, really well for a while, and the things that I did were - were selling very, very well. So Adobe said, hey, do - just do more of that. Do whatever you want. And I came up with this idea for animation inside of a browser, where, you know, you could just make a simple language that used the most - the smallest amount of data and instructions in order to describe an animation and play it on a web page.

And I pitched that, actually, to - to the CEO of Adobe when I was there, and he said, oh, people don't want to see dancing monkeys on web pages, you know? And I said, what do you mean? That's exactly what people want to see. Are you crazy?

Around the mid-90s, I started making some kind of more mature, polished types of screen-based artwork, where you interact with a screen using a mouse. Basically that's - that was the only way we had back then. And they were actually meant as a combination of nature and technology, a way to take something that feels like nature, but looks like technology.

So Bubble Harp is an example of that. We have these geometric bubble patterns. Gravilux, where you can draw with stars. And those were shown in galleries and museums. You know, they were considered as fine art, exhibited as fine art, collected by the Whitney and the MoMa and places like that.

But as soon as I installed work in a gallery, I realized that the screen-based work, where you have like a mouse and a screen, is really problematic because in a gallery you're experiencing everything with your body and yet, when you approach a screen, your body collapses into one eye and one finger, you know, some kind of like Greek - a Cyclops with one finger. So, I vowed that if I'm going to show anything else in a gallery, it has to use your body as the interface.

When I think back, that was really the roots of what I wanted to be as an artist, is to create a kind of artwork that hits you first, this really in your gut, and then later, you know, filters up.

At first it was, you know, this wild excitement about my art career, and I did I think about 200 shows. But, gradually, I started to realize the financial implications of that as I was actually losing money on every show.

I actually had just about given up on installation artwork and even longer ago given up on wall screen-based artwork. And then, luckily, it got kick started again as soon as the iPad came out, and I realized, wow, finally there's a way I can distribute this the way I wanted to, sell it for $1 or $2, like a song.

There's hundreds of thousands of people, almost a million people, actually, that have downloaded those apps. And it's fantastic because people don't necessarily think of them as art, which is fine. I like them to just be kind of a surprise, that people can't label them but just enjoy them.

To me, success is people really enjoying our work and the work having a - a positive impact on a person's day. Just to bring like joy and surprise and wonder to a person's life, because the thing is we should all feel that all the time.

So an app album is a brand new thing. The idea is to create a - a complete, fully immersive interactive experience that involves visuals, music and interactivity.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to Biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations.

SNIBBE: Biophilia is a unique combination of media. You know, Bjork had this incredible vision. Her first six albums were about herself. It's about her and her own emotional experiences in life. And, for her seventh album, she wanted to do something different.

And so, the topic she chose outside of herself was everything else in the whole universe. Quite an ambitious topic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In Biophilia you will experience how the three come together - nature, music, technology. Listen, learn, and create.

GUPTA: As executive producer of Biophilia, Scott collaborated with Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork to create the world's first app album. It's a wildly inventive collection of songs, visuals and interactivity.

Scott also created three of the album's apps.

SNIBBE: Virus is one of the apps that we created. So, when you zoom into it, there is - there's a kind of side shows and main attractions. So, the Virus app launches, and each of these apps is a kind of interactive experience in which you can play with the music.

The idea is to create a - a complete, fully immersive interactive experience that involves visuals, music and interactivity. So, with Biophilia, there's 10 songs. There's 10 interactive episodes, kind of like scenes in a movie, but you can interact with each of them and touch them.

Every single song has three aspects to it. One is a natural element; the second is a musical, a musicological element; and the third is an interactive element.

This is obviously about the microscopic world of cells. So, every one of these cells is totally interactive, and you can drag them around by their nucleus. And, at the same time, viruses are coming in and they're trying to -


SNIBBE: Yes. You can try it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And can you manipulate the viruses as well?


So this is a kind of game where these viruses are obviously trying to attack this mother cell. So you can fling these away. But, if you do protect the cell, then the song gets stuck after the first two verses. So it's a kind of anti-game, where you have to lose this game in order to hear the whole Bjork song. You have to let the whole thing proceed, and gradually, you know, you actually do learn how a viral infection works.

But it also has this poetic side, because the song itself, it's instead of a femme fatale, it's like a virus fatale story. So it's these viruses love a cell so much that they have to kill it.

KATIE LINENDOLL, TECH EXPERT: Snibbe is a very interactive, very different artist, and his approach to everything throughout the years has always stood out. The level of detail and the immersion for a fan to experience, you can tell how much work has gone into this.

And I think when you take an artist like Bjork, and she achieves this and puts it out there, I think there's going to be this paving the way kind of process and it's - it will be interesting to see what's next.

SNIBBE: I miss the (ph) 42, so. But I think you need to be at least that age to - to remember buying an album, you put the needle down and generally listen to the whole thing end to end. Often, you'd sit on the ground, actually. I think there's something kind of like reverential, you know, almost like spiritual, the way we would kind of bond with an album.

And that completely disappeared, especially once - once we got to downloadable music because now people aren't even downloading the whole album, and certainly they never have that falling in love period, because now they're listening to music while they're walking, while they're working, while they're cooking. And it's nice to have music as a soundtrack to your life, but we lost that - that completely concentrated period.

The app has the potential to bring that back, and the way it does it is by - by demanding all of your senses at once. That's a potential not just of Biophilia, but with this whole medium, is that once again we can captivate all of people's senses and have a completely immersive kind of feature length experience with music. The next step for me is - is towards feature length experiences. It's like I'd love one day to be able to make like the 2001 of interactivity.




SNIBBE: And I think the future is a little bit scary. You know, I - I tell people, enjoy these last 10 robot-free years. You know, it's going to - there're going to be robots walking down the street in - (INAUDIBLE) maybe even 15 years. At least for the next 10 years or so it's more like what I'm doing, well, you know, she'll - she'll grow up never knowing that every screen should be touch sensitive and interactive.

What keeps me going is - is trying to push the limits of new ways of - of telling a story interactively. And I think the biggest risk is for us common sensing more and more about a person's body or their intention.

So gestural technologies are technologies that sense the continuous movements of human beings and respond to them. It sounds so novel and exciting, but it's the way human beings interact with each other, and that's why there's a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about these, because typically when you think about technology you think about how am I going to learn how to use this technology? But a gestural technology ideally should require no instructions, that it just senses the way you move into it.

So we focus on that type of interactivity, and there's lots of other people in this space, and some of them are doing things that honestly I think are going to fail. For example, controlling a television by waving your hands. It's much easier to simply, you know, press a button.

So I think those applications of gestural technology will probably fail. Also your hand gets tired, you know, sitting, waving in space to try to change the channel. So you really want things that naturally fit into your everyday - into your everyday life.

The next step for me is - is towards feature length experiences. It's like I'd love one day to be able to make like the 2001 of interactivity. I'm not there yet, really far from it, but that would be my dream, to make something that's considered like a masterpiece of expressing man's - man's place in the universe.

The work we did for "Avatar" is a great example of where we think this medium can go, a kind of fusion of interactivity and cinema. We made four exhibits for "Avatar." One of them lets you move and become an actual "Avatar" character and see yourself. Another is a table top where you can explore all the conceptual art and the way they conceived up Pandora in the film. Another is a way of creating your own shot through the film, the same way James Cameron did, you know, with this kind of iPad-like device. And then, the last one is a wall where you move and then wood sprites, those, you know, glowing jellyfish-like creatures, if you're - if you're slow and, you know, don't scare them, they'll come and settle on you, you know, just like in the movie.

So you can imagine an experience that was like a huge room or even a huge building where you move from floor to floor, and in each room there was another narrative experience, part of a story that's told partially through your relationships to other people and also through your relationships to interactive walls, ceilings, floors and tables.

If the people you're working with, you know, decide to move forward with the - the biggest possible vision, you know, it's - it's completely possible right now to have a fully immersive kind of interactive movie experience. So, you know, just keep - keep your eyes on our website, I guess, and, you know, you'll see what comes out in 2012.

So that's why a lot of what I do is social. You know, it's not just you in the experience, but you and many other people having a nice time together, not regretting the past, not anticipating the future, but just present, in the - in the present moment. That's it.

GUPTA: So much of today's technology only adds to our stress. But Scott Snibbe's apps and his interactive experiences bring us closer to nature and to each other.

Scott is part of a unique group of people driven to do more with what they love doing. Sometimes they find that passion by accident, and other times, it's as if they were born to do nothing else. In the end, though, they are all agents of change, and that's what earns them a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

(voice-over): For more on this episode and other agents of change, please go to And join me on my life stream, at It's a one-stop spot for all my videos, blogs, tweets and behind-the-scenes photos.

(on camera): I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching. See you back here next Sunday.