How hacker culture made its way into banner advertising

Sometimes the best work comes from working under constraints rather than having a free pass to do whatever you want. For example my colleague Nick here at Realise has been quietly working away on something amazing for the last six months.

Working within limits

Nick came to us having worked for years in ActionScript (the scripting language for Flash). As banner adverts have slowly transitioned from Flash to HTML5, Nick's developed a suite of tools to allow him to use similar effects.

At this point, it's probably worthwhile pointing out that what most web developers would have done at this point is found a third-party library, installed and configured it, then ridden off on their Penny-Farthing, to get a light trim of their topknot.

However, Nick didn't have the luxury of that: all websites that accept banner advertising have very strict limits on how large (in terms of file size) they can be. No-one wants their site to grind to a halt on a mobile device, just because there's 300MB of video playing at the bottom of the page.

You can see a whole lot of Nick's demos here.

My favourite one is the smoke.

But the sticky snow is quite lovely too.

Pushing the envelope

All of this reminded me of the demoscene.

You might imagine that programmers would idolise Neo from The Matrix as the epitome of cool. I have a different view: the coolest programmers I've ever heard about were part of the demoscene.

The demoscene is a subculture of programmers and artists that developed out of hacker culture in the 1970's. Groups of hackers and programmers created demos. Basically short, non-interactive films, made out of code rather than video.

In the golden age of the demo scene, these programmers would use any trick or hack to make their demo look impressive - using undocumented features of the hardware, tricking the display into showing more colours than it was possible for the computer to display and even using bugs in the operating system and hardware to achieve effects never intended by the original engineers.

But once powerful PCs - often with wildly different specifications - arrived, it became much more complicated. Many of these tricks would only work on specific hardware and anyway, with greater memory and powerful graphics hardware, much of the challenge had been removed.

The scene today

The demoscene still continues - often with self-imposed constraints, such as using tiny amounts of memory and using techniques such as procedural generation, as seen in No Man's Sky.

There’s a lot of debate currently about the user of ad blockers, especially as they have start to reach mobile devices. This is a complicated debate, with valid points on both sides, but I think it’s worth noting how hard some developers are working, to ensure that ads use as little resources as possible.