News & Views

Cinder / Behind the behind-the-scenes Innovation Grand Prix Winner

by Contagious Team

Intrigued by the winner of Cannes Lions' top Innovation campaign, we caught up with The Barbarian Group's co-founders, Keith Butters and Benjamin Palmer, to learn more about Cinder

Familiar names abounded in the list of Grand Prix winners at last week's Cannes Lions Festival. We've all watched Dumb Ways To Die and The Beauty Inside. We've seen Dove's Real Beauty Sketches. We know Oreo's Daily Twist campaign. But one name amongst the top honors was relatively unknown: Innovation Grand Prix winner Cinder. Intrigued by the dark horse champ, we caught up with The Barbarian Group's co-founders, Keith Butters and Benjamin Palmer, to learn more about Cannes' most mysterious winner.

In layman's terms, what is Cinder? 

The official explanatory line is, 'Cinder provides a powerful, intuitive toolbox for programming graphics, audio, video, networking, image processing and computational geometry.' Cinder can be used to make many different things, but the main focus so far has been interactive experiences with real-time 3D graphics.

It can be helpful to use a metaphor when explaining Cinder: Suppose you wanted to paint a painting in the days before you could just go to the art store and buy all the materials you required. You'd need to purchase canvas and stretch it, hand make brushes out of animal hair, and mash up flowers and berries and other things to create your paints.

Before there were software libraries like Cinder, hundreds of lines of code needed to be written to create a window on your desktop and draw in it. Cinder allows developers to quit spending their time reinventing that canvas, and gives them the ability to spend more time painting. Then if you extrapolate that metaphor to networking, sound, image processing, and computational geometry, you can see how powerful a tool like Cinder is.

What's unique about Cinder? What separates it from other creative coding platforms?

Because Cinder is meant for creating high-end projects, its user base is comprised primarily of professional developers who work in collaboration with teams of visual designers, interaction designers, user experience specialists, 3D artists, creative directors and the like. For many, Cinder has served as a vehicle for taking the broader craft of interactive design that our industry has honed building Internet experiences and applying those skills, processes and professions to contexts like application and experiential design.

Additionally, the software has grown from a tool focused on a single ad agency's needs into a technology used by a long list of companies and independent artists across the world, wiring in nearly every facet of design and technology.

Why did you develop Cinder? In other words, why do you think Cinder is important?

Cinder was originally written as in-house tool for implementing the built-in iTunes visualizer for Apple, and later the augmented reality issue of Esquire magazine. When Cinder was started, it was difficult to find a development platform suitable for projects like these. Several hacker/hobbyist frameworks already existed, but they weren't designed for professional C++ development. Furthermore, while high-end game engines are quite powerful, by necessity they are too high-level to be appropriate for the more customized, smaller scale development that client-driven creative coding requires.

Cinder is free, everything is much more streamlined, and complex projects can be executed with a pretty small team pretty quickly. The software essentially makes work that would otherwise take a considerable amount of time to develop (and therefore be priced out of any reasonable client budget), possible within a much smaller time frame.

Alternate options to Cinder do exist, but they're either considerably more time consuming, much more expensive, require large specialized teams, or all three.

Why did you opt to make the platform open source, rather than keeping it private?

There are a few major reasons we decided to open source Cinder.

First, we believe that if you release tools for others to freely use, modify and contribute back to, the benefits of those contributions are greater than any advantages of proprietary ownership. More simply, what you give is what you get.

Second, we have been the beneficiaries of a massive amount of hard work done by the open source community. To do great creative work in digital without things like Ruby on Rails, php, python, (the list could go on forever), would be nearly impossible. So we made a decision as an agency to not just be the beneficiaries of other people's work, but to be a company that makes a substantial contribution to the open source system.

And, with Cinder in particular, by choosing to open source, we are helping to bolster the professional side of creative coding. More clients and agencies are making installations, mobile experiences, digital outdoor, etc., with less risk, because the tools are better. And that means we all get to push our creative into new contexts and experiences.

(A personal note from Keith: I had actually prepared a speech when I decided to propose open sourcing Cinder to my partners at The Barbarian Group. I had my bullet points written down, knew which license I wanted to use, and was prepared for some serious debate. Not more than three sentences in to my proposal, everyone just unanimously said, 'Yes,' and we just moved on to how and when to make it happen.)

How much of an investment was Cinder's development?

Monetarily, our investment in Cinder has been relatively small. We have dedicated resources to its development, primarily its principal developer and Technology Research Fellow, Andrew Bell. But, while we could probably estimate how much money and support the company has invested in Andrew, it would pale in comparison to the amount of additional, after-hours, weekends, and long nights that he, and others, have put in to the project.

Cinder has also been a passion project for many people at The Barbarian Group over the last several years, and so, even before it was open source, other Barbarian developers were moonlighting on Cinder contributions while still working for clients during the day. Many of us wish we were able to contribute more (ourselves included), but our client work still comes first.

And, we can't forget the contributions of the open source community. Their man hours would also be impossible to quantify. There are currently 1,283 people who have 'starred' Cinder on github, there are now 272 forks, and the Cinder forums are very active with discussions and proposals regarding the future of the library. It's pretty incredible.

Which clients have creatively used this tool? How have they used it?

Much of the early foundation of Cinder was built to make the Esquire Augmented Reality issue possible. We were working with a set of technical parameters (and software licensing issues) that made it difficult to use the tools that were available to us at the time. We have also used Cinder for many internal projects, prototypes for clients, and software releases, such as Screenstagram, our Instagram-driven screensaver.

Can you share a few other projects that have been made with Cinder (or are currently in development using Cinder)?

One of our favorites was Pool Party, a project done by Red Paper Heart for UrbanDaddy. The art studio created audio responsive visuals projected onto a swimming pool full of ping pong balls. There's something about it not just being a big touch screen, or 'normal' projection that takes it to a new place.

Another really beautiful one is the Paleodictyon piece, a stunning projection piece that was done for the Centre Pompidou-Metz in Paris. (This short film contains more info).

What impact has Cinder had outside of advertising?

Academic institution MIT has used Cinder in various ways, and more specifically in its (T)ether project, which enables three dimensional data to be viewed and edited between different groups of people.

Some other organizations that have used Cinder outside of the advertising industry include: 

Visual effects companies (The Mill, Mirada
Hybrid production companies (, Hush
Traditional design firms (Pentagram, 2x4
A new breed of tech/design firm (Breakfast, Fathom
Technology companies (Google, Intel, Microsoft, Industrial Light & Magic) 

Additionally, some of the most innovative new hardware is shipping with Cinder support built-in; Intel's innovative new time-of-flight depth camera is a good example. 

How do you see Cinder evolving in the future?

Cinder is still a relatively new project, in fact, we haven't reached version 1.0 yet. The evolution will be determined by the wants and needs of the creative coding community, agencies like ours, and other institutions, as well as open source contributions.

We also hope to see more agencies dedicating resources to open source, and either contributing back to Cinder, other projects, or releasing their own tools, so that everyone's work can keep getting better.