Friday 27 September 2013

Bill Sebastian's Outer Space Visual Communicator

It's not often I come across such a unique hybrid instrument, the OCV by Bill  Sebastian and eventually his company Visual Music Systems is a complex hybrid visual music machine with some very complex control interfaces. It incorporates both optical electromechanical light sources, electronic video effects and video generation and an incredibly complex interface system for intuitive instrumental control. The system has been adapted and added to over time extending it's original functionality while maintaining the beautiful imagery and excellent user control. So here is some information very kindly provided by Bill about his astounding and very unique visual instrument. (please excuse accuracy of the info as with such a complex system I may make mistakes or place the available images in relevant but not completely correct contexts)

"The Original OVC built 1973-1978
Input devices (original system)
multi-touch keyboard using capacitance switches to support something similar to electronic finger painting,

as well as large numbers of switches, faders etc to control signal processing, 7 foot-pedals

Signal processing (original system)
signals processed by about 5000 separate TTL digital logic packages (DID YOU SAY 5000 BILL!) to build patterns, implement sequencers, and otherwise expand upon the multi-touch input. Total latency through processing system < 10 msecs, so that responses were as immediate as audio musical instruments, phase-controlled firing of projector lamps

above is a pic of 1 of 6 wire wrap boards, each with about 750 ICs.!

Display (original system)
12 foot diameter hexagonal display curved as if looking at 10% of the inside of a sphere
rear projection using 3 primary filtered lamps per segment. 91 segments. 

high contrast: performed in optically controlled environments (absolutely no light other than display) so that sections of performances were done in scotopic range (where luminance is too low for retina cones to function), so that we could explore the bottom threshold of visual perception. Concerts usually began at those levels and remained there long enough for the photoreceptor chemicals to adjust for maximum sensitivity, so that when we moved up to higher brightness levels, colors were generated that are not possible under normal lighting conditions

"Funniest moment in that process was once when we had a short between ground and VCC, which could be anywhere on board.Couldn't find it after half a day of searching.  So we took the VCC & ground (no ICs were installed at this point) and plugged into 110VAC.  Got a nice 'POP' and then had to do 1/2 hour of cleanup repair." (brilliant!)

Real-time video synthesis experiments 1980-1985

Input devices
used original OVC, but played with only 1 hand, as 2nd hand used control video equipment
video control system that allowed controlling cameras, optical effects, etc. with 1 hand
mouth controller that controlled 18x3 channel RGB mixing board using something like a 3D harmonica 

Signal processing (video synthesis experiments) - added to the orignal OVC system: 
optical video effects, such as 6 foot long front-surface mirrors with 4 axis servo control over camera at one end and 2 axis control over monitor at other 18x3 channel RGB analog video mixing system, with 6 level depth controls per channel 

I asked Bill about the complex lines generated in the mandala like structures and he very kindly replied
"There are actually 2 low-level image sources in the the videos, both of which go through the optical
kaleidoscope feedback processor. The blob-like shapes are coming from a video camera pointed at the original OVC. If you look closely at the them in some places you can actually notice that is a hand doing multitouch fingerpainting.

The other low-level source is a line generator.It doesn't make a good dancer, but worked well with the kaleidoscope processor to provide a nice background texture to counterbalance the blobs."

To add a short extra interesting bit of information to this story the OVC was primarily if not exclusively used with the amazing Sun Ra and his Arkestra (can you think of a better partner for these visuals)
 and Bills work is mentioned in the excellent book How To Wreck A Nice Beach which I am yet to dig in to. Bill apparently is also a keyboardist/synthesist and built much of the OVC in a basement at MIT as well as a barn in Ore City, Texas. The OVC would later go on to be referenced in the pioneering early Hip Hop classic from Jonzun Crew "Pac Jam Look Out for The OVC" 
The lineage of Sun Ra's direct influence on the cosmic aspect of early hip hop can clearly be seen with the OVC being a link in that chain (detailed in a few places linked below in a far more knowledgeable way than I could ever do). Bills 3D system - started construction as of Jan, 2011 and is still under progress see coverage on web site!


  1. Bill used to perform with the OVC at the Starsystems Loft on Thayer Street in Boston in late 70s early 80s. My band, Bound and Gagged, had the honor of performing with the OVC, as did many others. It was an experience beyond words.

    1. Oh that's awesome would love to see photos if you have them!