F.A.Q in Depth
Here are more in-depth answers and thoughts to questions and design processes behind Frax.
If you need a quick fix then check the F.A.Q page.
- What do you recommend to get started with Frax?
When you run the app for the first time, there are quick start videos to explain the rough basics: akin to "where the break pedal is and what the steering wheel does".
After the four main buttons and gestures, there is another video for Shuffle, the factory presets and saving & sharing. Within a few minutes you will have a pretty good insight how to zoom, pan, play with colors, change the lighting, shuffle new textures and locations, and explore dozens of built-in example frax scenes - which could keep you busy for hours.
Note: if someone else has gone through the videos and they are no longer shown at the start, you can find them in the Help index, page #1, (tap the 'i' tab for info) and they are also available here.
Tip: After all that… you can try tapping the logo, there you find Frax Flow, the continuous mode which keeps feeding new fraxes and animating… like a screensaver. You can see many effects that you might not have expected. Each file can be used to zoom around in and modify, just tap the tick icon and you are back in Frax Explore with that scene.
Tip: if you are still playing after hours, you might consider tapping the logo again and find the button for "Why upgrade to Pro" which explains all the next level features you can get with an in‑app‑purchase!
- What can one do with Frax?
We tried to create an interesting creative experience, playing with mathematical visualizations, akin to having play value - without it being an actual game per se.
At the first level it is simply good fun to be able to fly around inside these complex structures at such speeds - even if you have never seen them before, but especially if you actually DID try this a few years back: having it become realtime immersive is just wonderful in its own right.
But then there is the next level of appreciation: the sheer inspiration one can take away from the shapes and colors and the animation motion, all of which are quite unlike anything else out there. That alone is already hard to do these days: with billions of photographs on Flickr, killer CGI in every movie made, it has become exceedingly rare to create images with real 'newness'.
The first phase is Exploration of these scenes, which you have never seen quite like that before. But then you advance to the next stage: Creativity - where you get to make your own images, find new locations within the humongous fractal spaces and then use the Shuffle functions to combine colors, lights and textures for a totally unique result - your own fraxes.
That is probably similar to someone sitting at home playing piano - nothing needs to "come out" of that process, it is not meant to "do anything" really - the pure act itself is already enjoyable.
There is yet another side to Frax though, and that is the aesthetics of the high resolution output - images of gigantic proportions can bring out amazing detail, great fun to discover what you had only seen as a small preview on the mobile device in its full glory - enough credits are provided for free to try each size, even the 50 megapixel Ultra at 8192 x 6144 (for Frax Pro users).
Of course for graphics Pros, there will be all kinds of practical applications, using completely abstract textures as backgrounds in print or on websites, the color gradations and superglossy looks, or extracting small details as ornaments and decoration - or the real frax images as next-gen wallpapers for monitor - who knows what they will do with it, we look forward to finding out.
But these are almost merely icing on the cake - it is not billed as a productivity item, but as creative fun and inspiration with a deeper aspect: you are playing with the nature of Nature.
- How does the tilting work, it seems inverted to me?
When you zoom and pan in Motion you can then also use Tilt -physical change of the device angle as you are holding it. There is a page in the help about all this.
A couple of things worth noting: some people seem to assume that it works only flat horizontally, as if you are rolling a ball on a wooden board - that is not the case: you can hold either iPhone or iPad at ANY angle: as you begin the animated motion, the current angle becomes what is considered normal and neutral. From that moment on you can tilt forward or backward and change the animated motion (note that you are affecting the panning and rotation, but not the zoom)
Secondly: much to our own amazement, there is a division of almost exactly half and half of the users, as to which direction the tilting feels natural: one set prefers it to be more like steering a wheel in a driving simulation, the other just like objects on the screen sliding around with gravity. There is no real "proper and right" here, this is purely a personal preference. We therefore made it a switch that you can flip, in case you feel uneasy. Go to iOS Settings and scroll down to the individual apps, where you find Frax, then change Tilt Invert there :)
- In 'Colors' mode there is no zooming?
When you learn anything new for the first time, there are ideas that come to mind early on, which turn out to be wrong as you progress further. For instance, when driving fast, "why can't I use the reverse gear?" or playing piano "can't you label the keys properly?" may seem like a good idea at the time, but a while later you chuckle about it.
Nothing wrong with the question as such: you zoomed and you want to keep zooming all the time, no matter where you are, zoom zoom zoom… Maybe it is just a measure of the happiness people derive from zooming.
So basically: yes it is true - if you switch to Colors and then pinch - you are not zooming any more - but for a very good reason: the gestures have been re-used now, for Colors stuff.
That is the total essence of the Frax Explore four buttons: they switch the gestures sets, period. You hit Colors…. and then pinching, spreading, swiping, twisting… all of it will do Color things. And if you tap Lights, the same basic gestures are now doing Light controls. So if you tap Textures… ;)
It is one failing we could not remedy: Frax "seems" so easy that many people totally get into the "chuck the help stuff" mentality - they skip the little videos and never read any of the i button tips & tricks… yet ;)
The hope is that at some point they DO find out: this is a subtle beast and there is a HECK of a lot more one can do besides flying and shuffling… and they consider the old rtfm…
The short answer is: of course you can still fly. Tap Motion and go ;)
- When I zoom in, it stops at some point. Aren't fractals infinite?
Yes on both counts: in principle, there is no limit to the resolution of the Mandelbrot and Julia sets, much like there is no "last digit of Pi". You can indeed compute it iteratively to go deeper and deeper ad infinitum. There are two catches though.
One is the self-similarity. Going 1000 times deeper will not yield results that look 1000 times different, but rather it is like "infinite numbers of tigers have infinitely many different stripes". True enough, however, if you have seen a million tigers, you begin to get the feeling you have somewhat exhausted the space of possible tiger stripes… and you start thinking of hoping for leopard spots…
That is where Julia sets are often similar but have their own 'feel' to the shapes and symmetries. There is a good deal of more background information here in the FraxPro help page for "Shape".
That alone would be no reason to stop zooming - but alas, there is still that ominous second point: the cost of calculating the deep regions will grow exponentially and thus the time it takes…
Images can be found of ultra deep zooms on the web everywhere, but upon closer examination they took hours, or in some cases weeks with powerful desktop machines.
We want to do it up to 60 times a second ;)
So Frax has to make a decision where the optimum compromise lies, between realtime speed and zoom depth. There is a page by Ben on some of the math techniques involved, but essentially it means that with 'double precision' resolution a range of hundreds of trillions:1 can be done exceedingly fast even in the iPhone. From "all the way out double tapping to zoom", getting 300% closer each time, you can do that almost 30 times!
To go farther would require a totally different deep engine, and become extremely slow - and that …while there are still only… more tiger stripes down there ;)
That said: the Julia Sets allow us to employ a different technique and there you can effectively keep zooming in, with more self similarity, but infinite…
- You wrote it can zoom in a trillion to one - seems quicker to me at times?
Simple explanations here: one is that you are likely starting from one of the presets, or by shuffling new locations with the shuffle icon on the Motion button: many of those are showing special shapes found in special areas, some of them around Mini Mandels or even Nano Mandels. Thus you are already wayyy deep in there and the journey to the limit takes only a few pinches.
The second simple reason is that you might be zooming into the texture, not the fractal shape. This is a little harder to discern for a novice. The default Spiral, preset #1, is mostly showing a complex texture in beige, orange, turquoise color. If you try to zoom into that, it will bounce back at first (and on repeated attempts give you the zoom-out warning) and that might feel "too soon".
The real fractal shape that you CAN zoom in much much farther is the edge of the black in the upper left corner, or the center of the spiral, too… try that, you can double-tap almost 30 times, each step being 300% deeper (once at the end, do a triple tap to hyper-zoom out!) With a little bit of experience you will soon tell the difference between the actual fractal edges and the textures that fill all the regions in between.
Tip: once you let go of that notion that you probably have to go deep to see interesting things, which is absolutely not the case, you realize that zooming is not a virtue in itself, but finding unusual shapes is the trick - which literally can be found at ALL depths.
- Why do the buttons change color? And fade away?
Indeed, the main four buttons in Explore (and the tabs in Pro Design) purposely change their hue along with the colors on the screen at any given moment. Initially the interface was "normal", as in "fixed color", and we tried the obvious candidates like white, black, grey and various other tests.
But then we found that many times the fractal can have very soft gradations and hues, and the lighting can create such subtle shading that the strong black or white elements ended up simply rather "loud" against that, while "just grey" made it almost invisible against unfortunate backdrops.
The idea came up to make it more pleasing by taking the UI color directly from the screen image - and once we tried it, there was just no going back :) The interface ended up always gently fitting the overall appearance, without getting in the way, but also staying legible and clear as well.
That latter part was actually fairy tricky: for one, there is not just "The Color" of course, and it is also not applied simply as "a flat rectangle". In the end we had to create custom algorithms to take a weighted average of the hues, and apply them in a blend over the generic grey button shape - and of course do so fast enough to not slow down the animating motion! Not trivial, but it worked out so well that you can even see the buttons change in real-time - You can try it: go to "Colors" and just swipe… you will see the whole screen rotate the hues and the buttons right along with it!
For a while we had a Settings preference to keep them in a fixed color, but no one ever used that during Beta, so we kind of let it fade away gently into oblivion.
We ended up lovingly calling it "Chamaeleonic UI" ;)
- What's up with all the tabs in the Frax Pro Design room?
A fair question: at first glance it looks like "a whole bunch of tabs" on all sides of the screen and a certain amount of wtf-ness is called for. However… give it a chance.
There is certainly quite a bit of method to the mad tabness. It goes back over a decade, in fact, and as an abstract interface concept it was called "TD" back in 1999-2000. There are several related patents pending regarding the unique aspects of hiding complexity, particularly in extremely complex hierarchies and taxonomies.
You only see the tabs when you are switching between tasks. Once you actually decide to do something, all of the tabs retract away and you are left with the full pristine screen to look at, with one high-res slider along the bottom edge, with which you can edit in realtime, unobscured.
So really there is NO interface at all during the moments when it counts: when you have chosen what you would like to mess around with…
Once you are done, the tabs come sliding back in (one tap can make them hide or show again, too) and then you can pick something else to do - and there is a LOT that can be done! At first there are only a few tabs, six on the left and seven on the right edge, one at the bottom - but the beauty of it is that these do not add up to "a dozen"… but instead they control EIGHT dozen parameters (and in the general TD concept it could be hundreds or thousands more). And do consider the alternative "normal" method: maybe eight sliders fit on the iPhone - but you need to have a ten or more PAGES of these to get to them all… (We did start like that, chuckle)
The key is that each node shows only relevant detail, while hiding the rest. So as you select Colors one the left side, you will get a set of Color things on the right side, Hue, Saturation, Blur, etc…
What you are not seeing is all the Lights or Textures or 90% of the rest of the detail. It is a bit like being in the kitchen, getting a can opener and forks, while in the bathroom you get toothpaste and in the garage you get a hammer and saw. There is really little point in showing you all the saws and toothpastes while in the kitchen. This organization by relevant groupings into a nodal hierarchy is the essential concept of TD.
In the end the idea is to be able to switch from any one of 100 parameters to any other in less than a second, while having each of them described with a proper long label, not obscure icons, no pathetic abbrvtns. And then for it all to vanish away so you have the pristine document in view. And also to work on all four variants: the small iPhone, the large iPad and in horizontal and vertical with visual symmetry…
Please do give it a chance, despite being somewhat unusual at first glance.
We do hope it grows on you and becomes second nature for those who are in Frax more often.
- How about showing the gradients as a visual picker?
In Frax Pro the 256 gradients are shown in the bottom "South Slider" body when you select
Spectrum > Gradient. Then you can swipe across slowly.
At first it may seem that the finger obscures the gradient: you can easily remedy that by moving it upwards while touching, and then swiping horizontally.
The idea to show all the gradients in an album or as a long scrolling gallery of strips is visually appealing - and we tried it. But the realization is that you actually cannot really gauge the effect on your current frax by looking at the gradient: the location and also the texture settings, as well as the light strength, tinting, frequency, marbling are all overpowering the "native pristine" look.
In other words: you may be seeing a nice bright spectrum of many colors in the gradient picture, but the actual frax is… just dark blue? Maybe the frequency is set low so you only have a tiny fraction visible, or the invert flips were used, or the Lightness and Brightness are set to extremes, or you zoomed into a small portion of a texture, etc etc.
So in the end, what you actually really want is not so much the catalog of the original gradients, but rather just to look at the final effect of each new gradient in your real life case… and that is what it is currently trying to do: without obliterating the image, you swipe along and see what actually comes out in the end and keep going until you have something nice :)
We may still do a 'visual catalog' some time in the future just so you get more familiar with all the variations and possibilities. More is coming there…
Advanced Stuff for Real ‘Freax’
- Why is Frax using only Mandelbrot and Julia formulas?
That question could have several answers, but the main one is actually not very 'technical' at all: there seems to be a universal nearly desperate desire to go ever deeper and deeper, always further to the next major discovery. It was inevitable to expand from 2D to 3D of course - and 4D if one considers the animated time element.
But it also means that as everyone rushes deeper into the goldmine, all these side tunnels are left unexplored. So many nuggets never seen.
Much like there is a reason to still do black and white photography, we found it enormously rewarding to dwell a bit on the roads less travelled. And there is a gigantic space of possibilities left there, "just" in these two domains. After a few hours you begin to realize that more and more…
In a way, Frax became "the definitive homage" to the classic Mandelbrot map for the class of Julia sets and while it would have been easy to pile on dozens of new formulas, we felt it was the right thing to do for version 1.0 to keep within these Mandelbrot/Julia bounds and explore them as deeply as we could.
That said, there is no reason that Frax II may not venture further, of course. In the words of Cleese
"We may be dumb, but we are not stupid…"
- What about full 3D, Mandelbulbs and such?
Frax is 3D in the sense that it is not flat like a sheet of paper, but the fractal shapes have height and the lighting creates glossy highlights and shadows (try preset #27 and pinch it when in Lights mode - that shows the difference between flat and height in just one second…)
It is like a mountain range - technically called a "height-field" - and the textures generate further levels of height yet, which catch the lighting as well (there are some dramatic depthy examples). In Computer Graphics that would be called 2.5D, and full 3D is when you can fly into the shapes which are real space-filling constructs.
No doubt these are wonderful aesthetic realms and if you poke around a bit you can find our Tom all over that topic - his full 3D fractal videos like "Surface Detail" having been viewed over a million times cumulatively. With one of the definitive experts in this field, you can bet we do have some things cooking… but that feast isn't quite ready yet ;)
The fully immersive real-time quality of Frax is one of the essential goals we hoped to achieve and we will only offer those higher levels of complexity once we are satisfied with a similar level of fluidity and immediacy that we have no become so fond of ;)
So ask again in a few quadrillion nanoseconds…
- It gave me a number for a Mini Mandel?
Indeed… Ben wrote an automatic parsing algorithm to distinguish spiral centers or 'other holes' from real Mini-Mandels (small copies of the M-Set appearing as you zoom in) and there is a library of over 10,000 of them.
We are currently not using it functionally, but we might ;) For the moment it just flashes each number (sorted by size as you zoom deeper) for the pure geeky fun of it.
Tip: if you are using Shuffle in "Motion" and you are switching from one location to the next, once you are finding a actual Mini Mandel, it will keep jumping to further Mini Mandels after that… ;)
It can be really fun to see how they vary in shape (some are quite skewed and distorted!).
Once you have had enough of the Minis, just swipe to pan a bit to the side and then Shuffle.
- I saw some images with depth of field focus effects, am I missing a DOF slider?
Very astute observation… indeed there are some very interesting fx that can alter the appearance of sharpness quite like DOF in lenses. However, this is an emergent behaviour as opposed to a discreet parameter.
In most cases a blurred gradient is spanning wide areas in one of the texture components, while in the other there is higher frequency detail into which the same gradient is compressed with apparently much sharper edges.
Also the far zoomed-out areas - "just before the Frax logo appears" are more likely to spread the gradient softly - and the gradient itself is critical as well: some have built-in extra soft ranges.
Good idea to have a closer look at these settings if you come across a particularly good example :)
- There are examples with multiple layers of textures. Can I do that?
The texture engine has two components and there is a great deal of complex behaviour possible in how they get combined. For this tip you need to have upgraded to Frax Pro.
Some of the most interesting advanced fx stem from purposely using Balance all the way to one side, then setting the MixMode also to one of the extremes, Min or Max. That way you will have a texture that gets cut off where it is computed to be lower or higher than the basic height field, yielding an apparent 'alpha-channel-like masked area'.
Once you have that "layer" isolated, you can use Balance at minimal 1-3% settings and introduce a texture for the "background". However, tiniest changes in MixMode and Balance will completely alter the final effect.
- Can I make my own color gradients?
Frax has 128 distinct gradients built-in, double that for Pro, 256, each of them with 512 colors. Sometime in the future we may well allow extracting such color sets from user supplied images (such as Mona Lisa yielding muted browns). But it is a bit more involved than just a simple 'scanline across the picture and done'… so we decided to not rush it for version 1.0 and rather do it right.