Uzu: Psychedelic fireworks

Here’s the bottom line on Uzu. If it were the sixties and a drug, you would want it in your coffee. But the sixties are fifty years gone and we’re too jaded to embrace new ideas and trends so naively. So the developers will need to do a little more work to make Uzu first rate, mainly:

  • More user control options
  • More color selection options

And they can do that if you would just buy the app now.

In addition, I explain why I never saw Space Odyssey stoned and see an opportunity for a new generation to embrace the music of the Airplane and the Dead. Welcome back Jerry Garcia.

I was trying to remember why stoners were so attracted to this kind of art, or at least former stoners like me, who, even after thirty five years of sobriety, still find themselves attracted to exploding lights and particle motion.

I remember wanting to see 2001 Space Odyssey stoned because I’d heard so much about how vivid and psychedelic it was when viewed through an altered state of consciousness. I was a sophomore in high school and the hardest drug we could get access to was pot, which in San Marcos, Texas in 1970 was prevalent on the college campus (or so the narcotics officer who spoke at our class swore to us) but harder to find around high school.

I walked to campus to see if some of the members of the debate team knew where I could score and they weren’t too clear on it either. I went to the office of the Purgatory Creek Press, San Marcos’ underground paper, and even though I had written an article or two for them they suddenly decided that a fourteen year old kid looking to score some weed must be narcing for the cops.

Finally a friend of mine, Craig (whose last name I won’t mention since he’s now a middle school principal) said he knew where we could score a shit load of weed before we saw the movie. We met in the alley behind the church before walking to the theater (which was all of two blocks in those days) and he produced three fat joints and a handful of pills.

We killed an entire joint and split the pills then headed downtown to the theater. As I sat through the movie, I found myself getting more and more antsy and having a harder time sitting still in my seat. What was worse the movie didn’t seem any more deep or spiritual than the first time I saw it.

I told myself to wait until the light show that ensues after David Bowman lands on the artifact floating in space next to Jupiter. But I was really edgy and all I could think was, let’s get this movie over with. It’s time to go.

I ended up throwing up in the can and afterward Craig admitted that he smoked all the pot himself with his girlfriend the night before. (She now sits on the San Marcos School board). Rather than disappointing me, he cured some Johnson grass that grew in his back yard and soaked in some chemicals he stole from his father, the town’s Xerox repairman. The pills were diet pills his mother’s doctor prescribed for her.

I was bummed. I was pissed. Craig could tell I was pretty angry and offered to make it up to me. “I have a couple of tabs of orange sunshine I was saving for a special occasion.” He held out the palm of his hand. “We could take them before the next show and see it again.”

“Since when does a tab of sunshine say St. Joseph’s?” I asked. To be honest, I’d never taken acid before, I wouldn’t know a tab of acid from the explosives on the roll of cap gun paper. I just had a hunch we were about to dance the same dance one more time.

Craig remained my friend all the way through high school but I never, ever gave him money for drugs.

The App Store’s recent App of the Week, Uzu, made me think back to those days. Kind of like safe nostalgia. Remembering the halcyon days while conveniently forgetting the paranoia that ensued whenever there was a knock on the door and everyone who was supposed to be there was already in the room and that mad dash to dangle the merchandize over the toilet before someone else checked to see who was knocking.

Bring Back the Grateful Dead

Uzu is the latest iteration of a series of particle generation programs that cause your iPad screen to explode with fireworks. Uzu isn’t about fireworks, however, so much as the physics of motion and velocity. Depending on how many fingers you tap with and what you do with your fingers when you tap, Uzu animates the particles to simulate a different experience from oscillation to Brownian motion.1

I can already imagine readers thinking, Stephens, you must really be a sucker for this kind of app. You seem to review one every week.

Don’t blame me. Apple keeps picking them for App of the Week.

In terms of complexity, this is probably the most sophisticated motion generator on the iPad and it also seems to have generated a huge following on YouTube (or else a huge publicity campaign). Uzu emulates ten different motion principles. You invoke them by the number of fingers you use to tap the screen. As a consequence, you will get the full effect of Uzu only when you lay your iPad flat on the table (or as flat as an iPad can get on the table with its rocky rounded bottom) and go at it with finger combinations from both hands.

This is also why it’s difficult to get good screenshots of Uzu at it’s dazzling best. The effects are the most vibrant when you’re actually touching the screen, not using both hands to capture it.

You can also share Uzu with a partner. In fact, the developers encourage more than one person to experiment (probably because it’s so difficult to get ten fingers going without causing the iPad to slide around the table). I would even recommend inviting over several friends with iPads, lining all of them up on the table, turning up the Grateful Dead or the Airplane on your stereo, lighting incense or any other mood enhancers, turning out the lights and having a synchronous Uzu light show.

You can also play Pink Floyd or Iron Butterfly. I just never grokked them the way I grokked the Airplane and the Dead.2

The number of patterns you can generate is truly amazing.

The effect depends on the number of fingers.

That being said, and it may surprise you that I write this, I am more excited by Uzu’s promise than the application in this incarnation. For all of the psychedelic dazzle, Uzu leaves me wanting more. I suspect this is because it’s still in the early stages of development, but Uzu lacks some of the promise and features in other apps such as Gravilux. And, admittedly, Gravilux was tweaked several times after it’s first release.

Too touchy

The biggest problem with Uzu is precisely it’s reliance on using the number of fingers to invoke different effects. I recognize that this makes the effects far more varied and spontaneous. It also makes it more difficult for me to access specific effects.

It also means I have to memorize how many fingers I need to create the effect I want.

It also means when I have four or five fingers going I can’t see what’s happening on the screen. By the time my hand moves away, I get the sneaking feeling that the best part of the effect was hidden under my hand.

Limited color range

Until you get all ten fingers going Uzu displays only in yellow, green, red color shifts. The only way to adjust the color spectrum is to hold down all the fingers at once, watch the colors shift until you see a color range you like and the hope you get all your fingers off the screen before the colors have shifted yet again.

It reminds me of the experience of tie-dying t-shirts. The first couple of times it was fun; after that you just bought them from a store.

You can shift colors if you can get all ten fingers to play

An Uzu upgrade wish list

Uzu features an open screen that asks you to click the “begin” button before the psychedelics launch. I would hope the developers consider giving users a choice of using multi-touch controls, or selecting specific effects and colors from a separate menu. The app might also allow users to change the motion effect by tapping on the screen. And it might also be nice to access your iPod from inside the app in case you decide the music you’re playing in the background isn’t trippy enough.

So should you wait for an upgrade to buy Uzu? Under no circumstances. Buy it now so the developers have more money to play with. Besides, the developers are keeping the price down until the next version release so you would be doing yourself a favor now.

Jenny Manytoes rates Uzu

Jenny Manytoes would take a nap at Uzu in its current state. But I firmly believe that if enough people buy it now, we’ll all be making biscuits a few months down the road.


1Look it up. I don’t really have the space to explain it, even if I thought I really understood it myself. It has something to do with predicting the paths of particles suspended in fluid, and, or so I’ve been told, it’s one of the easier motion models to understand.back
2The verb “to grok” should take many readers back to a time and consciousness that Uzu calls to mind. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you desperately need a sixties experience.
On the other hand, if you’re the kind of Christian who thinks this kind of party could subject you to demonic influences (I’m talking about the Christians on my side of the family, not the Christians on Carol’s side) substitute Amy Grant or Jars of Clay for the Grateful Dead, put some potpourri in a pan of hot water and shout “Praise the Lord” each time one of the explosions makes you think of angels or heaven.back

The Jenny Manytoes Rating System


Jenny Manytoes, our polydactyl cat
  • When Jenny makes biscuits on a product she thinks she’s in heaven.
  • When Jenny purrs over a product she’s very happy.
  • When Jenny naps next to a product it’s okay with her.
  • When Jenny bunches her tail she can live with a product, but she has higher expectations.
  • When Jenny leaves it in the litter box….I don’t think I need to explain this one.

iPad Envy is created entirely using apps from my iPad
iPad Envy.

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About Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T. Stephens disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle twenty years before he was born, creating a time travel paradox so confusing it remains unspoken between physicists and sci-fi writers to this day. Follow @stephens_pt
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