Jake Lodwick, a programmer and filmmaker, made a name for himself in tech and media circles by helping to create Vimeo and College Humor in New York. After a few years spent largely out of the public eye he's moved to San Francisco and is ready to debut his new company, Elepath, and its first public project, Moonbase: a plug and play service that aims to make it easy for anyone to create complex animations and rich media for the web without having to know a thing about coding.
Moonbase uses a visual system so that anyone can get in on the fun with no coding experience, but the process wasn't entirely intuitive for me. I flailed around for a while with concept of waves, amplitudes and phases. But pretty quickly I grabbed the plug and play mechanics and was able to generate some fun, hilarious "moonies". Because they are written in HTML5, these projects are easy to embed on any website and, in my testing, load well even on mobile. But having more than one on a page can really tax your CPU, and three on a single page borked the browser in one test.
Elepath raised $1.3 million in late 2011 and now consists of six engineers. Lodwick is an eccentric, and Elepath is basically structured as an artist's collective: the company's slogan is "We make mistakes™", with the members working on their own projects and the team coming together to collaborate on something like Moonbase only when its clear that everyone at the company is passionate about it.
The inspiration for Moonbase came from William Cotton, one of Elepath's engineers, who has a side gig creating visuals to project onstage for bands and DJs. "I was using a hodgepodge of Quartz Composer, MaxMSP, and Mainstage to make interactive multimedia compositions. But the things that I would make, I couldn't easily share, because the person would need all of that software, and all of the plugins I was using," says Cotton. "Even though I'm comfortable writing out code with a text editor, the environments are never very responsive and the feedback loops never short enough. So that's why I like visual programming languages. Immediacy is very important to the creative process."
The team at Elepath hopes Moonbase will appeal to creative types and casual meme creators, perhaps sparking a new generation of more complex, visual humor online. They also have a few ideas how to turn it into an actual business. "Tumblr makes a lot of money from animated GIFs appearing in the radar of the dashboard. But those are limited to 256 colors & aren't interactive," says Lodwick. "With Moonbase, a brand could create a full-color, animated, interactive meme, and a designer could do it without an engineer's help." Elepath is also considering creating custom tools for hard core users that would be interested in buying a premium experience.
The final wrinkle to Moonbase is that it takes a cue from Github, the coding community website, and allows anyone to clone and then fork (remix) a project. It's similar to the approach offered by Canvas, Chris "Moot" Poole's cleaner version of 4chan. When a hilarious new meme hits the web, folks can quickly take a stab at their own version of the punchline without having to build the whole thing from scratch.
I asked Lodwick if he worried the system, simplified as it was from learning to code, was still too complex to really have mainstream appeal. "We want to make it intuitive," he agreed. "But part of William's vision is to not dumb things down."