I remember the first time I really felt like I was able to see into the future.
It wasn’t by gazing into a crystal ball. Or by taking some form of magic mushrooms. Instead, it was a short subway ride downtown, and a quick elevator ride upstairs to an otherwise nondescript NYU building on Broadway.
It was there that I found myself at the Spring “ITP Show” a place where students have been turning code into physical things long before New York was the thriving tech hub that it is today.
ITP, the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU may be New York’s secret weapon for innovation. And remarkably, it’s been around since 1979. ITP is a two-year graduate program located in the Tisch School of the Arts whose mission is “to explore the imaginative use of communications technologies — how they might augment, improve, and bring delight and art into people’s lives.”
But it’s not about science fiction – rather its about the now, or almost now. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, they describe themselves as ”The Center for the Recently Possible.”
The word you hear a lot at ITP, and at the bi-annual shows where they open their doors and their inventions to the public is “Physical Computing.”
The ITP story begins in 1971 at the Alternate Media Center (AMC) with George Stoney and Red Burns. Burns and her colleagues came from the wild world of documentary, and wanted to create tools to make and distribute their work. It was there that ITP was born.
I remember the first time I met Red, with her fiery red hair. She was a force of nature. Her eyes full of life, her passion for both storytelling and technology present in everything she did. And so ITP, from its earliest days wasn’t just about code – but about how code could create physical manifestations of things the world needs to get done. Burns had a clear vision of where all this was going – and she was always two steps ahead. “Consider the technology as a tool which, in itself, could do nothing.
Treat the technology as something that everyone on the team could learn, understand, and explore freely” said Red. And now, with the word of her passing – New Yorkers who care about tech should take a moment to appreciate the foundational work she did building our community at ITP.
You may have read about ITP in the past few days. NBC bought a new video creation and aggregation tool Stringwire from Phil Groman, a young ITP grad student. The solution is nascent, but powerful and innovative. And going back to my first visit to the ITP Show, I was reminded of just how many of those ‘ah ha’ moments I had watching the students turn their ideas into action.
Part of what makes ITP special are its students, who are making an important commitment of both time and money (the program costs a pretty pricy at a time when the startup world can beckon and offer all the sexiness of money, fame, and fortune.
But ITP is pretty glamorous as well. The professors are world-class rock stars like my friend Clay Shirky, who’s book ”Here Comes Everybody” literally changed my life. Marianne Petit an interactive story legend, Tom Igoe is one of the developers of the Arduino, and Daniel Shiffman is well known for his work in developing the open-source processing coding language. Rock stars – all of them. And they’ve had some amazing alumni, as well. Dennis Crowley, founder of FourSquare, built his first startup Dodgeball while at ITP.
And Crowley, when asked by The Village Voice if his investment in his ITP education was worth the cash – said: “If I had taken that money and invested it into myself, I don’t think it would have turned into anything.”
While MIT’s Media Lab may get more press, ITP’s open loft space and equally open willingness to let average folks see their twice a year display of innovation makes the place special in a way only my fifteen-year-old son can explain in one word: ‘cool.’
And ITP’s coolness may come from the fact that it is – in its heart – an art school with a passion for technology. Students almost never come right out of college. Instead, the students are diverse. Painters, poets, doctors, lawyers, no one has to have a background in computer science. Which is part of why what they create seems like it comes from the future, because they don’t bring any preconceived notions about what the connection between technology and our world needs to be. They bring, as Willie Wonka once said, pure imagination.