In-Depth with Simone Majocchi

In-Depth with Simone Majocchi

This week we're pleased to introduce artist, maker, and journalist, Simone Majocchi who first caught our attention after reaching out to share a Google Drive folder filled with his 3D fractal RGB-D art on Discord.

From the age of 17, Simone started experimenting with holography and today continues to push the boundaries of 3D art with a series of fractal artworks he's brought to life in Looking Glass Portrait using the the mathematical playground, Mandelbulb. His work spans 3D printing, journalism, Arduino, art installations, robotics, and even playable light instruments. Below, find a recap of his journey in creativity and technology as told to us over a Zoom call from his home in Dubai.
– Marlon

Hi Simone! Tell us about yourself, your journey.

With over 40 years of working experience in the technological field, I've had the opportunity of seeing many technologies conceived, imagined, dreamed and turned into reality. In 1982 I created “the first magazine on tape for Home Computers” (named “RUN” for ZX Spectrum)  that became a genuine phenomenon in the publishing landscape, a real innovation. It is now a piece of retro-computing history.

If that sounds crazy, what brought me there is even crazier: when I was 17 years old, I sold my Hi-Fi to buy a HeNe Laser that I then used to shoot my first holograms on Silver Halide Agfa glass plates. The holograms that Dennis Gabor theorised and won him the Nobel Prize in 1971.

Cassette covers from Simone's Magazine on tape

Wow! You were right there from the start. How did you merge your passion for technology with your vocation as a journalist?

The laser was the project that brought me to Italian electronics magazine, Elettronica 2000, where I was mentored, found a second home, and focused on my vocation as a journalist all the whilst doing things that intersected journalism, technology, computing and innovation. For example, I created the first Italian online service for home computers (1986) with software downloads, chatlines, build-your-pages, programming courses and reviews on Videotex technology. I even worked as a session player programming keyboards!

In 2010 3D printers were surfacing on the internet as a possible Next Big Thing. Two years later, I was an Italian 3D Printing Evangelist, doing workshops and seeing the makers movement grow thanks to these new digital fabrication solutions. I was there when the first maker spaces and Fab Labs became a reality in Milano.

In 2015 I joined the Arduino Team. One of the founders - Massimo Banzi -  welcomed me saying that he had read my articles in Elettronica 2000 since his teen years and that my work had inspired him (that was a BIG moment for me). I had already been working remotely for Arduino so when I decided that my time in Italy was over, it allowed me to move to Dubai in February 2019.

I am now pursuing my wish to give back. I have been doing workshops, giving lectures, and I was the Fablab Manager for 15 months in the Prototyping Lab of the Design District. Covid times were quite crazy, but I had to keep working in the lab to grant the proper advancement of student’s curricula producing kits with limited resources and almost no one around to help. My skills as a maker and problem solver were my secret weapon to succeed in many challenging tasks.

Now I am starting new collaborations with other labs, focusing on mentoring and sharing. I run summer camps on 3D modeling and 3D printing, robotics and coding with Arduino.

What have you been working on recently — either as a hobby/part of your work?

On top of being a maker, my passions include digital art, 3D and 3D printers, LED and Arduino interactive designs, music and photography.

Everything is connected, and I circle through these, always trying to find something new. So often is the combination of two old things that bring out something new, and definitely, Looking Glass Portrait is that thing that goes very well with many of my passions.

Dubai is a place with so many “instagrammable” corners, so why not try to make some 3D pics with an iPhone? I was already feeding my Instagram with cool stuff, and now I have even more fantastic images on Looking Glass Portrait.

When NFTs got some momentum, I - being a curious person and with my attitude as a tech journalist - decided to learn all the processes. Still, I needed some compelling stuff to offer on a marketplace and an Instagram profile devoted to those NFTs.

I dusted off my digital art passion and looked into my apps for dealing with fractals. The one I started with almost 35 years ago, Fractint, was released in the late eighties on MS-DOS (WHAT?). Another go was Mandelbulb, a 3D freeware that was released much later and required a lot of processing power to render the images: sometimes days. At least this was what I remembered, but my computers evolved since my first renders and the painful tens of hours turned into tens of minutes. So Mandelbulb was my choice to create NFTs.

You can imagine this app as a navigation software into the beauty of mathematical formulas. The program is supplied with many formulas developed by the community and you can explore, zoom, and move around them. You can also mutate to generate something new. And then there is light, transparencies, fog, ambience and many other customizable parameters. I start at a limited resolution (800 x 800) to see what I was working on, then I navigate and adjust where I am looking to find some detail that creates that WOW effect. Colors, lights and fog are the next while post-processing such as transparencies and reflections are used only on specific types of images. It is a long and recursive process, similar to the nature of fractals themselves.

Many times mutations just create mathematical dust with loosely visible patterns. Other times you get an infinite something that is so repetitive that it has no appeal.

After weeks of experimentation and hundreds of hours of rendering, I created my portfolio of high-resolution digital images suitable to become NFTs. I set up my portfolio on a marketplace and patted myself on my back for the achievement.

While I was doing that, Looking Glass Factory launched the Looking Glass Portrait campaign on Kickstarter. As a fan of holograms and the target of many ads of the former product, I had no way to resist the super very early bird offer. I had to own that thing. Too many boxes checked, not so expensive, something that could be useful in teaching within my job.

After a few months, as promised, the courier delivered and what I saw was way beyond expectation. I've seen many 3D displays in trade shows and events, but this one (I wear prescription glasses, so am not comfortable with VR/AR headsets), was close to magic.

What are you most excited to make with Looking Glass Portrait?

The demo reel was mind-blowing.

While waiting for the Looking Glass Portrait to arrive, I bought a second hand refurbished iPhone XS to be ready for the “portraits”. The next day I was going around shooting pics almost at random to see what was the result. For almost one week, the device was getting all my spare time.

I was carrying it around to show it to friends and colleagues as I felt the urge to share the experience with as many people as possible. It produced the wow effect every time.

After the iPhone pics, digital art was the next logical step when I started to get more confidence with the process. I am not good at animations, and in the past, I was in love with Bryce, the application developed by Kai Krause that many years ago was some sort of natural landscapes generator. It is still available, so I got the latest one and started some experiments. Namely light fields with a series of stills made moving the camera. I created a couple of series, but I did not do my homework correctly, and I messed up the sequence, perspective, and rest.

I launched Mandelbulb and used the “Save Z-buffer” option after creating a simple RGB image. A quick look at the grayscale image already gave away some exciting features, then a brief passage on Photoshop to put the RGB and the D side by side created the RGB-D png file.

Drumroll, open HoloPlay Studio, load the RGB-D, wait the few seconds necessary and… WOW!

THAT was something! I played a little with Focus and Depthiness to find the best results, and another idea struck. Back in Photoshop, I inspected the curve of the grayscale image, finding that it was not using the full range of values: a straightforward matter to fine-tune and adjust in Photoshop. Saved again and reloaded on Looking Glass Portrait. BOOM! It was deep, detailed, much more sensitive to the controls and even beautiful to zoom-in and pan.

The following days were just exploration, mutations, renderings and grayscale adjustments. I made some 50 different images. Some of them are truly awesome and you can enjoy six of them with the latest Drop.  You will be amazed. I rendered them at 3000 x 4000 pixels to allow zooming in with good detail so please zoom in and explore.

That is the essence of fractals.

What else have you made so far with Looking Glass Portrait?

I own a Leap Motion sensor and worked in the past with Unity and Unreal engine, Tilt Brush. When I saw the list of plugins, I immediately reinstalled Unity. I downloaded the Library app made for the former product and the standalone interactive apps.

I wanted to experience all the possibilities offered by the Looking Glass Portrait, and most probably, I did. The bouncing balls, the other interactive things, the fantastic aliens, some games, videos and everything that caught my attention.

Experimenting is indeed necessary; seeing all the possibilities is what I learned by writing my reviews of products for magazines. I am very excited by the device, and I understand that we are at the beginning of its evolution.

Being a 3D printing mentor, the STL visualizer (STL is a file format native to the CAD software) is pure madness: it adds that thing that I was missing while explaining 3D printing.

How does Looking Glass Portrait differ from other technology you've used so far?

No glasses (sometimes VR headsets are too much), very natural, shareable, and believable. It truly delivers a 3D perception and the experience is less hard on your brain.

What's your favorite hologram?

My favorite physical hologram was a 20 x 30 cm reflection white light hologram (dichromate gelatin) that I owned 30 years ago. My heart broke when it was accidentally shattered. The broken parts exposed the gelatin, and the image vanished. On the Looking Glass Portrait, it's the Astronaut for the animations, my Mandelbulb fractals, the blobs for interaction, a Portrait mode picture I took with my iPhone.

Your favorite 3D software tool?

I use many 3D apps for work such as Fusion360, TinkerCad, Catia, Zbrush Core, and other modeling applications. It depends on what I have to do. Bryce and Vue D’Esprit were getting quite some of my time in terms of creativity, but currently, I am down to designs that need either laser cutting or 3D printing. I will go back to Bryce to refresh how it works and retry light fields for fun.

50 years from now, what does the future look like?

I see two diverging tendencies. One is the growth of all these disrupting and exponential technologies, and the other is the resistance against all these changes by current generations that run society.

The growth of technology and the pace of innovation is tough to follow.  The internet is short-circuiting information, labs, researchers, industry, users and everything else altogether (including crime and ruthless people). When we are intrigued by something, the next big thing is already in the making. Not everyone is prepared to take all this in. It requires some know-how, faith and trust in science, scientists and people in general.

I think that the current user interface (screen and mouse/keyboard or touchscreen) is the bottleneck between me, the Internet and knowledge in general. Still, when this is overcome with something like Neuralink, I also think there will be no way to avoid terrible things currently happening to our computers (viruses, exploits, ransomware, etc).

On the positive side, if I think about how YouTube tutorials changed the life of so many, allowing people develop incredible skills in a just few short months, having a direct feed to my brain of the same information that - I assume - would be transferred as the experience of hours of practicing and memories. It sounds like the parts in Matrix movies where people ask for a download of some specific ability.

AI and Machine learning - the other BIG things - are showing tremendous potential already. However, I think they are still in their infancy, and just a few well-informed people and scholars understand and imagine how they will develop. What will humans make out of them is quite a guess. I think we are still in a very conflicted society on so many levels and aspects, and I am not sure if we have the purity and goodwill necessary to use these technologies for the good of everyone.

What's a day in the life of Simone Majocchi like?

Every day I try to have a walk, no matter the weather. Early morning or evening, at least 6 km that here in Dubai, with the heat and humidity of summer, is like walking on a treadmill in a sauna, but it’s ok, I am now used to it. Another task, if there is nothing planned, is looking for something technological to take care of during the day. It can be software to practice more or a hardware design I am willing to make.

If I don’t have to go out, there is always a morning break to make a V60 filter coffee: chose the beans, grind them with a manual grinder, prepare the filter, pour the boiling water following the rules and finally, enjoy it.

If I have workshops and training to prepare, I collect the relevant pictures, data and files, and organize the storytelling. As a maker for many years, I have several computers available at home, an electronics lab with Arduinos, sensors, and actuators; I have two 3D printers, a little CNC, and many hand tools.

This routine is because I am currently rearranging my activities after one year and a half employed in a Lab as a Manager. In Italy, I had my own company, and I had customers. Here I am reinventing everything finding new spaces and activities.

Check out Simone's drop here
Follow him on Twitter and Instagram
Join the conversation on Discord

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