Jeffrey Ventrella

Evolving Animation Through
Artistry, Imagination, and Technology


by Gregory Pleshaw


Jeffrey Ventrella's career in computer animation has been about traversing the fine line between art and technology - as well as juxtaposing movement, mathematics and technology to create moments of pure magic. His latest project - Wiglets - shows this celebrated techno-artist unleashing Wiglets, a new kind of digital creature which dances from tablet devices and smart phones into the real world around us.



"Every era in mass media has its icons," says the 53-year-old Ventrella, who gained street cred in the early 2000s as the co-founder and Principle inventor of There.com and a Senior Developer at Second Life. "The era of film brought us Disney & Mickey Mouse. The era of television brought Sesame Street and the Muppets. And the era of networked mobile computing will bring forth ...Wiglets!"

Using the tools of augmented reality, the creatures being developed by Ventrella's team, which they call "interactive reality toys" - are emerging icons in the casual gaming space, where apps and digital toys for both children and adults that engage the imagination are exploding. But there's nothing casual about how Ventrella's career trajectory brought him to this place. Ventrella's Wiglets will introduce a series of real world products - including a book, a t-shirt, and greeting cards, which interact with these creatures in real time and space.

Ventrella's career began with a degree in Art Education and Art History from Virginia Commonwealth University in the mid-1980s. Upon graduation, Ventrella discovered computer graphics through exposure to the Commodore 64, and he began to learn how to code fractals from an issue of Scientific American. This was a crucial plotpoint for Ventrella's career as an artist and a technologist, allowing him to bring art and technology together, paving the way for a career in both disciplines.



Soon after, Ventrella entered Syracuse University, to earn an MFA in Computer Graphics. He stayed on to work as a data visualization expert. Colleagues from an array of disciplines, including physicists, biologists, and family therapists, would arrive with disks full of data and ask Ventrella to make graphical representations of their numbers. Using super-computers, graphical work stations and Pascal, Ventrella was an early info-graphics artist. During this period he was also exposed to artificial life and cellular automata, and he presented papers and demonstrations on these topics.

Leaving the snowy northeast, Ventrella had a short stint teaching Computer Art and C programming at UC San Diego, before heading straight back east where he was accepted to the MIT Media Lab, based on his past work, and awarded a full scholarship, earning a second Master's in Media Arts and Sciences from the prestigious academy. Ventrella's crucial work of this period was his thesis, titled "Disney Meets Darwin" which applied genetic algorithms to character animation - a rumination whose evolution can be seen in his current work with Wiglets, which will evolve through repeated play.

Ventrella's fist job in the private sector was at Rocket Science Games in 1995. Rocket Science was a fusion of talented people from Silicon Valley and Hollywood, a strange consortium of people dubbed "SillyWood" by Wired magazine. The company came and went by 1997, but it was there that Ventrella met Will Harvey, founder of There.com. Ventrella soon joined There.com as co-founder and Principal inventor. At There, Ventrella's mandate was to evolve the "expressive avatar," a virtual person who could express the body language of real people inside a virtual world.

There.com was a seminal player in the virtual world space, alongside Second Life and Sims Online, and it still remains up and running. In 2005, Ventrella joined the staff of Second Life, working for Linden Lab for two years before turning to consulting and working on his own projects.

He continued to develop interactive works such as "Gene Pool," " Darwin Pond," and "Melody Ball."

Ventrella has also produced numerous books and publications, such as "Virtual Body Language," "Brain- filling Curves," and "Divisor Drips & Square Root Waves," as well as produced artworks and written works on such topics as fractals, artificial life and cellular automata.





Founding

In late 2012 Ventrella teamed up with long-time friend Ken Pearce, a veteran of the animation industry who worked on Shrek. Together they fleshed out the concept of Wiglets, and built the first Wiglet app: "Flip Flop Dance Jam".

In his current project, Ventrella is taking the Wiglets directly to the public through a Kickstarter campaign to generate both awareness and funding for the consumer-level products - and invite children (of all ages) to come check out the fun. This world of fun includes the now beloved "Peanut Boy and the Hole of Danger", a Wiglet that jumps through the "hole" that appears in a dollar bill laid on a surface in reality and who is a key character in the Wiglet universe.



"The initial products are a book, a t-shirt, and some greetings cards, but we have grander ideas ahead," said Ventrella. "People will also be able to send us pictures of their tattoos and we can have Wiglets jump from within them. We're at the beginning stages of making merchandise that will bring forth this new species into the world. There's much more to come."