Sónar International Festival of Advanced Music and New Media Art

Anhembi Parque, São Paolo, Brazil. 11–12 May 2012.

How did you become a digital designer?

My father is an inventor who designed a geometric kite and is working on a perpetual-motion machine. My mother is an artist. From childhood I wanted to be a combination of the two. My parents let me use a machine workshop from the age of four to make anything, however useless. My dad and I built a Tesla coil, and I got a few 20,000-volt shocks, but my parents weren't afraid because we were Christian Scientists, and didn't believe that God would allow us to get hurt as long as we had a positive attitude and safety goggles. At university, I considered studying genetics or neuroscience, but I couldn't handle dissections or vivisections. Instead, I became a researcher at the computer–human interface, working on problems such as artificial touch and computer vision at places including Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and Adobe Systems in Seattle, Washington. Then I created my own companies, combining interactive art with business.

Social Light at the Science Museum in London lets audience members act as mirrors. Credit: SNIBBE INTERACTIVE

What draws you to interactive apps?

Other fields are limited by money, equipment and the laws of nature. But with computers, the only limits are technical ability, ingenuity and imagination. Nature has awed me since I was a child, but the educational system rarely conveys this wonder, transforming our Universe into boring multiple-choice questions. My programs recreate the wonder and magic to give people the kind of experiences that they have in wild places such as river banks. My apps borrow from nature, but the laws are slightly altered, as if in a parallel universe.

Can you describe your science-based apps?

With my Gravilux, you touch the screen and stars are attracted to your fingertips. I started with Newton's gravity equations but didn't get controllable patterns, so I removed mutual attraction. Bubble Harp draws Voronoi diagrams, based on a geometric algorithm first described by seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes, and used to model the structure of cells, the pattern of human settlements and the gravitational influence of stars. With Antograph, you 'paint' a pheromone that attracts ants, but they swarm off the trail, just as real ants would. I've had reports of it being used to teach what pheromones are, and one user of Gravilux said that it helped him to get an A grade in physics for the first time.

How did you come to work with Björk?

Scott Snibbe Credit: NICK HIGGINS

Björk chose to release Biophilia on the iPad. She asked my studio to produce the project, and to design several of the interactive song apps. One explains how viruses work: you see them injecting RNA into a cell and hijacking its reproductive mechanism. You can flick the viruses away, but if you do, the music stalls; you have to let the cell be attacked to hear the whole song. Another app, Hollow, animates DNA replication using a drum machine. When you touch different enzymes, they catalyse the DNA strand and trigger gothic musical loops.

What makes a good science exhibit?

It must satisfy someone with a PhD — and a two-year-old. Social Light, an exhibit on electromagnetism that I designed for the Science Museum in London, allows your body to refract simulated light like a prism, reflect it like a mirror or absorb it. At the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, Three Drops shows how forces of nature work at different scales. There is a screen where you can take a virtual shower as water flows around your shadow. Then the image zooms in to a single drop, which you can bounce around; the surface tension is so strong you can't get 'wet'. Then it zooms further in to show water molecules attracted to people's bodies as if they were impurities in the water. Here, we drew on the work of molecular biologist Tanya Raschke, who showed that water molecules form chains and loops.

How does the world of science differ from that of art?

There is an irreproducible uniqueness to an artist's work that makes the field less stressful than science. In science, if you don't make a certain discovery, someone else will, so even people in the same lab are competing with one another. In art, innovation and risk-taking are lauded, but in science there is an aversion to risk because people need to get grant money from conservative review boards. I know scientists who could speak a single sentence that would completely ruin their careers. And, like Barbara McClintock's pioneering work describing genetic crossover in corn, that sentence might even be true a decade later.

What keeps you excited about your work?

My imagination can take me up to Jupiter, or down to the size of atom — there is no need to actually create something unless it's for an audience. That is why I have mostly stopped showing in art galleries, because I wanted to reach the general public. I try to make an interactive app or exhibit as perfect as it can be, and then release it to see how people respond. I feel satisfied when someone says that our work was the most wonderful thing they encountered in their day.