The Best of 2012: Creative tech

For creative tech, 2012 was the year of both the cloud and the real. Cloud-based tools made our lives easier – though most of the best of them have sensibly also had a presence on our computers, tablets and phones. Back in the real world, combining interactive and graphic design with programming and practical electronics has allowed not-that-techy folk to begin building wonderful creations that would have required a team of hardcore programmers and electronics engineers to get working before.

These techs are all about getting nerdy; getting your fingers dirty; and getting a craft mindset that recognises that technology has as much place in craft as the contents of Cass Art.

3D printing has changed from being something for engineers and product designers to becoming affordable and accessible to artists and designers. Whether you want to prototype a homewares project before mass production or custom create a what-would-have-been-vinyl toy (such as Jo Roach's MakieLab, above) to hand paint for an individual client, the scope of possibilities is wide.

It's also difficult not to get excited about the emergence of accessible, hackable tech that encourages techy people to be creative and artists/designers to embrace their inner nerd – mini-computers such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi, 'magic' boxes like Twine and Little Printer, conductive inks and printable electronics, projection-mapped generative visual displays, and programs that make Microsoft Kinects talk to traditional creative 3D applications so you can easily create your own version of Paula Abdul's Opposites Attract music video (or something much cooler) with minimum expense.

These allow anyone to get involved in such projects if they don't have a big budget – and if they do, they can create some truly amazing things such as Leviathan's incredible stage graphics for Amon Tobin (below).

To get the most out of the likes of Arduino and Kinect-hacking, you need to learn to code. This has always been something as alien to artists and designers as the appeal of wearing a suit to work, but in 2012 we saw the emergence of online learning tools such as Codeacademy. This site fromZach Sims and Ryan Bubinski made learning to program accessible, even fun, through an emphasis on interactive learning where you learn about a particular function then immediately get to use it – a bite-sized modular approach that really aids understanding. It also features a simple, well-designed interface and is as winning friendly as Jessica Hische, so you quickly warm to it like a favourite teacher – which again helps you build and keep your knowledge.

Global data, local apps

Alongside learning tools moving from DVD courses to online schooling, our tools have also migrated onto the internet - though thankfully not completely. The apparent move from desktop apps to 'cloud' services that the tech press has been banging on about for a few years now finally hit the creative industries – but developers have had enough common sense to know that the browser is a pretty terrible place to host applications with all but the simplest of interfaces.

The CS6 versions of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, After Effects et al may be part of Adobe's Creative Cloud – which adds in shared storage and other services, and is arguably a bigger milestone for Adobe than CS6 itself – but they live in the same Applications folder they always have. Even the new Adobe Anywhere video editing system that moves effects and video processing to a central farm is based around the core Premiere desktop software you're familiar with. Autodesk has launched a browser-based version of its Inventor software for product design called Fusion 360 – but while relatively simple geometry manipulation may be possible in the browser without sludge-like performance, the addition of intensive systems such as texturing and animation make the likes of Maya 360 or 3ds Max 360 unlikely to appear any time soon.

This is hardly a new idea, as it's what we're used to with everyday tools such as email. It's just that we've been told that the future is accessing them through the browser and it turns out that it's simpler, easier and more efficient to use apps and desktop services. Even the best tools that help us run our creative businesses and keep our ideas, thoughts and projects together – while being accessible to us wherever we are and whatever device we're using – live on our desktops, tablets and phones. We love services such as Dropbox for sharing files, Clear for to-do lists and Evernote for note-taking and research – and so much more that you feel you could almost run your life from inside it – because they're as seamless as 'cloud' services should be, but have slick interfaces based on grounded UX principles that just aren't feasible in-browser.

(There's also something to be said for putting tools that do specific tasks in standalone applications that we access through the Dock or desktop to help us compartmentalise the tasks we do, which makes us more efficient, but that's something for a different article.)

The other big effect that the likes of Creative Cloud will have on our tools is that we'll likely see new features trickle into our tools more regularly than every year or 18 months. Again, this isn't new – Autodesk has been adding features specifically for subscribers to Maya and 3ds Max for years – but it's certainly becoming more widespread. Yes, you'll probably have a wait until CS6.5 or CS7 for big new features that touch large parts of the applications in the same way as Photoshop CS6's 3D engine or InDesign CS6's liquid layouts do, but the move to iterative development of creative apps means that Adobe can spend time on making its tools easier to use.

The relatively small tweaks to the Crop tool in Photoshop CS6.1 – or the redesigned Node editor in Maya – are good examples of how a focus on UX rather than features can be used to make interfaces better, which can have more of an impact on your work on a day-to-day basis than some amazing new tool you'll rarely use. Yes, in the case of Photoshop, one new update after six months is hardly iterative development – but if Adobe, Autodesk, Corel et al can move towards that model, you'll find yourself being able to create your work better or faster (or possibly both).

Creative Suite 6 wasn't the only notable release of the year, Autodesk dropped its usual yearly post-dated updates to Maya, 3ds Max, Mudbox, Softimage and MotionBuilder – though it was Luxology's modo 601 that received most of the animation software plaudits. Luxology was swiftly swallowed up by The Foundry, whose Nuke compositor (just now on version 7) is pretty much the industry-standard compositor for film and commercials work these days.

On the hardware side, Wacom's Cintiq 24HD (above) added gestural controls and an amazing screen to the tablet/display hybrid that everyone coveted but no-one could lift. Intel's Xeon E5 chips upped the game for high-end workstations – though Mac users got rather annoyed that no Mac Pro was announced to take advantage of them, Apple delaying launch until 2013 apparently (and surprisingly saying anything at all). Both AMD and Nvidia released graphics cards that could throw more complex 3D scenes around faster – inevitably – but also had a focus on giving 2D VFX and video work a kick up the performance backside too. HP's Z1 showed that it's possible to make a Windows version of an iMac that – dare we say it – trumps Apple's glorious creation for colour-critical work, while Dell's Precision M6700 put a 3D screen on a pro-grade laptop – a screen so good you almost don't notice how dull the case's design is. Video pros also got very excited about Blackmagic's Digital Cinema Camera – think a RED camera scaled-down for a two grand budget.

In the Digital Arts studio though, it was one new release that got our butterfingered team most excited – a washable keyboard from Logitech (below) that could survive a soaking from a morning coffee or a 'pulling-a-late-un' beer. Now that's progress.

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