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Derivative : A 20 Year Retrospective - Part 1

Today February 18 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of Derivative. I joined the company in 2002, almost 18 years ago, and there are many great tales to tell. You may have joined the TouchDesigner community in the recent banana era, some of you may even know who Smiley is, but Derivative's story goes much further back than that! To celebrate 20 years, I thought this was an excellent time to share the story of Derivative, and TouchDesigner, from the early beginnings to today. I hope you enjoy the journey, I know I have.

2000 – 2001 – The formative years

It all started back in the year 2000, the dawn of a new millennium, and 3 wise men came bearing gifts…
To be more precise, those 3 men were founders Greg Hermanovic, Rob Bairos, and Jarrett Smith, who walked down the street from the SideFx offices to 401 Richmond Street to start a new company. They found a small and cozy office on the 3rd floor and founded Derivative with the mission “to deliver innovative tools for designing and performing live visuals for the electronic music culture and for media artists”.
One of the 'gifts' they brought with them was Houdini 4.1 source code, the starting point for their vision of a real-time 3D graphics family of products that allowed artists to “create expressive and spontaneous digital imagery”. 
Inspired by artists' growing interest in interactive visuals, Touch was to be a real-time visual tool for the masses. Definitely ahead of its time, Greg, Rob, and Jarrett had been noticing the more powerful CPUs and graphics chips becoming available and saw the potential on the horizon.
One day Touch will run on your watch -Greg Hermanovic 
The first year and a half was spent setting up the company. Much of this time was spent creating a website and brand, and then finding some keen people to help. Rob (the single C++ programmer at the time) started work on adapting Houdini into a real-time engine, giving it inputs for MIDI controllers and basic interface building tools to cater to live performance. Jarrett worked on the design of new features, the taxonomy of the new systems, and early artworks. Greg was doing everything, as a new company owner does! During this period TouchDesigner 001 through 006 was tested as a closed alpha.

2002 – The launch

Actually, Touch 007 was publicly launched at the end of 2001 on December 17th. Introduced as the Touch 101 product family, this included TouchDesigner 007 ($1199) for authoring your work, TouchPlayer 007 a player of Touch artworks (Free), and TouchMixer 007 ($199) for the performing VJ which added to TouchPlayer the ability to use MIDI in/out, record/edit mixes, replace textures and more.
If you acted fast and purchased TouchDesigner007 before January 31 2002, you gotTouchMixer for free!
We used to call the collection of software Touch tools, so you’ll see me refer to the short-form “Touch” when speaking of them. Later in 2008 we abandoned the short “Touch” for “TouchDesigner”, and sent out the TouchDesigner Police to round up anyone misspelling it! But who are we kidding, we all still refer to it as Touch right? Now even TD is pretty common.
 

Raise your hand if you knew TouchMixer ever existed! 

The concept was inspired by analog systhesizers and you could take your .toe file (Touch Environment file) and save it out to make a Touch Synth as a .tos file (Touch Synth File). The .tos would run in either TouchMixer or TouchPlayer, but not TouchDesigner so you could not edit it without the original .toe file.
Fun Fact: There was also the .top file (Touch Project file), this was a file that saved the entire project folder and all its subfolders of assets into one package so it was easier to move and share projects between TouchDesigner authors. Cool!
Here you can read the Touch 007 Launch announcement!
Every VJ on the planet is going to want it - Cody Harrington, VJ

And this one is fun... here are the System Requirements for Touch 007.

 
Let’s talk about the website, it was quite ambitious. 
Always wanting to engage directly with the people using our tools, community building was a top priority. The first attempt at nurturing this was an [ARTWORKS] section where people could create their own Label. Under their label they could share their Synths by uploading their .tos files. They could also upload Tracks for each synth which were recorded performances or collections of presets that could be loaded if the user had TouchMixer. If the author was feeling generous, they could also upload the .top project file so other TouchDesigner users could learn or experiment with it. The naming of everything was heavily influenced by electronic music culture, as you can see record labels, tracks, synths, etc in use. This was our inspiration starting in 2000 and still something dear to us today, hello MUTEK :)

There was even monthly Editor’s Picks for these synths, curated artworks!

2002 – Big Productions

I joined Derivative in March 2002, introduced through my friend Jarrett. Starting as an intern working for free, I was a sponge trying to learn 3D graphics more quickly than the self-studying I was doing at home. After a few months, some production work came Derivative’s way, I was already in a chair and ready to work, and that’s how I started my career with Derivative.
We started doing more performances and productions with Touch tools as a way to further test and prove the software.
One of the earliest I remember was a collaboration with Smirnoff Toronto and Warp Records LA. Derivative produced a special visual synth for their event, and Touch artists topcat (Greg Hermanovic), mordka (Jarrett Smith) and Christian Smith ran visuals alongside techno pioneers Derrick May and Richard Devine. This synth was later available on the Derivative website and was hosted by Smirnoff on their live event promotional site as well.
 

Later that year we worked with Canadian rock icons RUSH for their North American Vapor Trails tour. You can read about it in detail in this article Touch on Touch with Rush: A Technical Overview

It was our largest undertaking to date and pushed the envelope of what was possible with Touch in every way. I remember working the nightshift on the synths for all of Rush’s songs, and going to rehearsals in some small town in New York state. I was completely awe-stuck to see the behind the scenes work involved in putting on a huge rock show, it was my first time back stage and very inspiring to my young self. You can’t grow up in Canada without knowing the sound of Getty Lee’s voice, it’s as Canadian as the call of the loon.

2002 - 2002 New Versions 008, 009, 012, 013

We didn’t have a build system for updates like we do now, so every time we released an update, the Touch tools version incremented.
Touch 008 was released on Feb 28 2002 and hot on its heels Touch 009 on April 2 2002. Here's a snippet of What's New in Touch 009.
A lot of the updates revolved around bug fixes and new artworks. The first Synth with a music track and a recorded performance mix was released by Jarrett Smith’s label Mordka, it was called Niosumed. A Niosumed Complete Walkthrough was highlighted in 3D World, a popular magazine at the time for the 3D visual effects industry.

Another major feature added to Touch 009 was the release of a Touch plugin for Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator4, allowing you to embed Touch synths into browsers. Touch... embedded in a website... in 2002!

There was also a strong following in Japan in these early years, they enjoyed Touch as much then as they do now! So in early 2003 we launched a Japanese version of the website.
懐かしいありがとうございました

Later in autumn of 2002, after we caught our breath from working on the Rush tour, Touch 012 was released on Oct 1 2002 (010 and 011 were internal builds we went through during the Rush production but were never publicly released). With this we also released the first TouchArt CD, a collection of all the artworks from the website's [ARTWORKS] catalog available to purchase on a CD ($19.95). It included its own installer and Flash interface to navigate the artworks and launch them. The hardest part of this project was having to pick which synths got into the TouchArt package because we were limited to the 680MB capacity of a CD. Why a CD? Downloading such a large package was impractical for many at the time. 

Touch 013 was a culmination of all the work in 2002 and basically polished the package. It was released on Jan 13, 2003.

 

2003 – 2004 Building on the foundation and more exciting productions

2003 started off with celebration as Greg Hermanovic (co-founder of Derivative and also Side Effects Software) was presented with a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for their work with Prisms and Houdini in countless feature films.

A major software update was released on April 10 2003 in Touch 015. This included a game changing features like dual monitor support for the first time, offscreen rendering, Quicktime movie support for playback as textures, and support of new Nvidia and ATI drivers. Nvidia and ATI GPUs were now becoming more popular as consumer GPUs, they became more affordable and were starting to show up in laptops. This new crop of GPUs and the performance optimizations in Touch 015 really opened the possibilities of what could be done.

Here's the full list of New Features in Touch 015.
 
Version 015 fueled us and our community for some truly amazing work. 
Starting out in Japan, Noboru Tsubaki created Cochineal, "a large fiberglass insect that lured visitors into its ‘web’".

In summer of 2004, the new PRADA flagship store in opened Aoyama Tokyo. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the building itself was unbelievable. Working alongside the architects, Derivative integrated 5 real-time architectural projections onto the walls and ceiling of the building. This was one of the first projection mapping projects done with TouchDesigner, and a sign of things to come. We were very excited about the result and we all wanted to visit Tokyo to see it. It would take me 8 more years to get to Tokyo for the first time in 2012, and I finally saw the building in person in 2015, where 3 of the projections were still running. 

Check out images from the PRADA-Derivative microsite.

Back in Canada, months of work led by Jarrett Smith climaxed at the 5th edition of MUTEK Montreal for the beginning of Plastikman’s world tour. Richie Hawtin (aka Plastikman) wanted to control the entire show from his console, a custom MIDI controller dubbed ‘CTRL LIVE’ built by his dad. We had to 'hack' Ableton Live 3 to send us clip change events and build a bi-directional audio-visual control system between Live and Touch. By the end, Richie had full control over the music, visuals, and we even gave him knobs to control the DMX strobe lights through Touch. Here you can read the GX Magazine article and a Derivative article with Greg Hermanovic interview.

 

The implications of what Derivative has created are profound. Traditionally viewed as an accessory to music, the visuals are now on equal footing with the sound. -GX Magazine
Storytime: The show was a success, but it didn’t go perfectly. The beginning of the show had the most challenging content, a satellite image of Detroit-Windsor area (home of M-nus record label and Richie Hawtin) was loaded into Touch as a huge texture and would start slowly zooming in over the first track. The piece had given us trouble in the weeks leading up to the show, crashing because of the memory requirements. In the show rehearsals in Montreal, everything worked smoothly with our latest optimizations, so it was given the okay. The show starts… smooth zooming in proceeds… from a state-wide shot, to city wide, then a few blocks. The buildings and river become clearer, we are 3 minutes into the show and all is well, and then BLACK! We check the computer, it looks like it’s still running fine on our preview monitor, signals are good, connection to Ableton is good, the track continues to play forward, TouchMixer is responding. What was going on?! Based on previous troubles with this track, we thought we were dead in the water and it was Touch’s fault, so we chose to reboot the synth to see if it would start outputting again. Nothing, just BLACK! The first track ended, Richie continues unphased, track 2 is on deck. We restart again, then switch to backup. BLACK. Stress. Sweat. More grey hair… or maybe our first grey hair at that young age? I don’t remember who noticed it, but someone noticed way up in the rafters that the projector’s light engine was flickering on the sides in sync with the music. Then we realized, the projector’s shutter had closed! Scramble to find the projector remote, click, and the show was back on. We never found the cause for the shutter closing, a timeout perhaps, someone sitting on the controller, who knows. Everyone backstage that night will never forget that moment. I know anyone working in live shows has had one of these “holy shit” moments, so I’m sure many of you can relate to the feeling.
That summer was very busy. We teamed up again with Rush for their R30 30-year anniversary tour. This time we send our new recruit, intern Markus Heckmann, on a 6 month tour of North America as our hired VJ for the show. Markus had only been working with us for 9 months before being conscripted for this tour of duty. Next time you see him, ask him about his crazy adventures across the good ol’ U.S. of A.

2005 – Touch 017 

In December of 2004, Derivative released Touch 017 which was another significant upgrade. In 2003 and 2004 we now had 2 full-time C++ programmers (Malcolm Bechard had joined) so things were happening twice as fast as the previous years. 
Some highlights in 017 were a Keyframe editor, Live video input and we even developed our very own movie file format called .tmv (Touch Movie file) with a converter to encode it.

Touch 017 was a special landmark in Derivative’s history, it was the final version in this era of Touch tools. After its release we would take a number of years to work on the next-generation of software tools, a complete re-imagining of the product.

 
If you have read this far, I congratulate you! For your dedication I’d like to share with you a special gift of TouchDesigner history.
TouchDesigner 017, TouchMixer 017, and the entire TouchArt 017 collection are available for you to download and try for yourself. Free, no strings attached, just please don't ask for any support!
 
This concludes Part 1 of my retrospective. If you remember using any of these older versions of Touch, please share your story in the comments below. If you found Derivative more recently, then tell us when you first discovered TouchDesigner and what version it was. If you have any hair-raising live-show stories, share those as well! We love hearing from our community, and as we reflect on the past 20 years it's time to celebrate with all of you who helped make this possible.
 
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will cover the quiet years, the re-launch of a next-gen TouchDesigner, and the rest of the path travelled to arrive where we are today.