While most projects in the entertainment industry today involve static playback of pre-rendered video content, occasionally a production will call for a live-camera or interactive video element. Some of these situations can be covered by most media servers or video playback solutions. However, when the live rendering or interactive elements step outside the capabilities of these tools, it’s time to turn somewhere else. That somewhere else could very well be TouchDesigner, an incredible piece of software out of Canada-based Derivative.

TouchDesigner is “a visual development platform that equips students, artists, creatives, educators and professionals with the tools needed to create stunning realtime projects and rich user experiences.” Simply put, TouchDesigner is a tool that allows you to do just about anything you can imagine to live or pre-made video. Its feature list alone would exceed the length of this article.

In addition to my experience with TouchDesigner, I spoke to some other power users of the program to analyze the aspects of TouchDesigner that we find particularly useful for live entertainment, even though TouchDesigner spans a wide variety of mediums from interactive installations, art projects, VJ performance, education and many more.

Performance will obviously be dependent on the machine you are using, but TouchDesigner handles system resources very effectively. From the get-go it doesn’t seem to have much trouble playing back video files, and a lot of them. One of the people with whom I spoke was able to run 80 SD video loops simultaneously with the 64bit Beta version. Beyond basic playback of videos, TouchDesigner also has a powerful 3D engine that is capable of rendering in real time and making live changes. This 3D engine makes the software a powerful tool for projection mapping. Many of the featured projects on Derivative’s website feature projection mapping, notably Amon Tobin’s ISAM and White Kanga.

TouchDesigner can also interact with outside data/video fairly easily. It’s capable of interacting with protocols such as DMX, OSC, UDP, TCP, MIDI, and serial. It is also able to pull in live camera or Kinnect information (live video and depth maps) to add another degree of interactivity. Getting these inputs to do what you want them to will require some customization.

Advanced TouchDesigner features come at a steep learning curve. The interface is relatively simple and streamlined, but it will take a fair bit of use to understand all of the intricacies of the program. The interface is node based, reminiscent of Max/MSP, Quartz Composer or Isadora. A neat feature that TouchDesigner offers is that you can see the video at each node in real time so you can see how it is being processed through your setup.

TouchDesigner is almost endlessly extendable. For the technically inclined, you can write your own OpenGL shaders, compile custom .DLLs, CUDA programs or even write your own nodes in C++. The newest release also added support for Python 3.3.

Some of the drawbacks pointed out by one of the users are that you cannot create a stand-alone application, which means you need a license for every computer in your system (free for non-commercial, $599 commercial $2200 pro), which can add up if you have a complex system. TouchDesigner also doesn’t handle audio as well as some competing products such as Max/MSP. It is possible to use additional programs to handle elements of the audio if need be. TouchDesigner recently added ASIO support in December to increase its sound functionality.

While we’ve only scratched the surface of TouchDesigner’s features here, I see it as a catch-all in the live entertainment industry. When video production needs go beyond the typical tools we are used to working with, chances are, TouchDesigner can pick up that slack.

TouchDesigner was first released in August of 2008 and is constantly releasing updates to the stable 077 version as well as a 088 Beta version. Special thanks to Thaddeus Reed (www.creativecontrol.cc), Evan Shimizu, and Isabelle Rousset (Derivative). Photos: Amon Tobin ISAM 2012 Tour. Projection mapping with TouchDesigner.

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