Watching the videos Zach Lieberman posts to Instagram is a little like watching magic at work. Colors, shapes, and typography behave impossibly; they bend, twist, and burst apart in midair like they’re physical objects. The visual effects are far from magic, though; they’re a clever use of Apple’s AR Kit and Openframeworks, the coding language Lieberman developed to create new media art.
Without a technical background, Lieberman’s experiments are hard to replicate. Good news for noobs though: Lieberman and his partner Molmol Kuo just released an app called Weird Type, that enables the technologically challenged to create some of the same visual effects Lieberman and Kuo make in their studio.
The artists developed Weird Type for the Design Indaba conference as a way to make technology like augmented reality more accessible for the average person. “This was a chance to almost put our sketchbook in other people’s hands,” Lieberman says. The app lets you manipulate a line of text (type provided by Swiss design house Dinamo) by applying one of six filters that effectively turn typography into a physical object in space. You can break and explode type; turn it into a ribbon, merge it with a photo, or let it sit stationary as the world around it moves.
Though it feels novel, Weird Type is carrying on the legacy of Muriel Cooper’s Visual Language Workshop, an MIT Media Lab group that in the 1990s was experimenting with early versions of 3D type. At the time, Cooper’s students were using early computer graphics software to detach type from its 2D grid. They’d float words in space, giving them a sense of depth and motion. At the time, the experiments were a wild look at the future of digital publishing. Today, those same concepts are finally becoming more commonplace.
You can see it in work from studios like Dia, who have pushed at the boundaries of kinetic design with animated type that appears to break the rules of physics. And designers like Xavier Monney, who is exploring how to play with texture and perspective in his 3D typography works.
Weird Type takes these ideas one step further, using augmented reality to make dynamic, 3D type interact with the real world. To be fair, you technically still see Weird Type’s creations on your phone’s screen, but the way the type plays off of the space around you is just as important to the final effect as the type itself. “We wanted to do something that was really about your environment,” Lieberman says. “Not just about creating content or navigating content in space.”
So far, the app has mostly been used for artistic explorations, but Lieberman says he’s seen practical uses, too. In one case, a contractor used the app’s 3D type to label construction sites. It’s a telling sign of what’s to come. “It’s going to be increasingly important for designers to consider space and get out of the screen,” he says. In the future, Lieberman suspects it’ll be normal for designers to think about type as a bendable physical object—one that’s on your screen, sure, but also overlaid on the physical world around you.