Meet Robert Ochshorn

It’s our pleasure to introduce you to Robert Ochshorn, co-founder of Reduct, a collaborative transcript-based video platform where everyone can review, search, highlight and edit video, as easily as text. In our conversation we got to chat about Robert’s educational journey as well as how Reduct was born and what his goals are when developing software. 

Los Angeles Post Production Group: You are very accomplished as a software engineer, cultural theorist, and media researcher. Can you tell us about each of these roles and what drove you to study computer science at Cornell University?

Robert Ochshorn:
Disciplinary boundaries have always felt artificial to me, and especially so in media. In the late 1970s, MIT Media Lab founder Nicolas Negroponte constructed a Venn diagram proposing a space of overlap between computing, publishing, and broadcasting. Today this convergence is self-evident in the products and media we consume and produce.

Writing software, thinking about how a culture operates, and observing forms of mediation … for me, these are rather continuous, not discrete roles. Perhaps this is unusual, but I’ve never understood it any other way.

I studied Computer Science at Cornell (while taking courses in Fine Art, Film Studies, and Critical Theory). The CS major was academic, oriented towards mathematical foundations and proofs. It was exciting to see the early outlines of how new mathematical theories could connect to new social forms and possibilities.

LAPPG:  Can you explain what Gentle is and why you created it?

RO: Gentle takes an audio-video file and a written transcript, and aligns each word (and phoneme) in the transcript with its position in the audio, with 10ms accuracy.

When a computer transcribes text, it does so by analyzing the audio over time and determining what might be said at any given moment. So it’s possible to extract the timing, and not only the text. The idea of Gentle was to get the timing out of a computer model, but for an existing transcript. There were tools called “Forced Aligners” that did this for small utterances of speech if the transcript was perfect. Gentle was designed to work on longer transcripts and to tolerate some inconsistencies between the transcript and the audio. This makes a whole new class of tools possible.

Last year, I wrote up some of the history:

LAPPG: What are some of the projects you are currently working on?

RO: Oh, there’s always too much I’m working on. So much is possible! And I love collaborating, trying to share a glimpse of these possibilities with others. Lately almost everything I do touches Reduct in one way or another. From the outside, Reduct might look like a single product or tool, but it’s actually more like a platform. This means that two video editing interfaces that look completely different could both be built on top of Reduct’s infrastructure.

LAPPG: How did the birth of Reduct come about?

RO: A couple years after releasing Gentle, I caught up with an old friend from high school, Prabhas Pokharel. He was wrapping up grad school at Stanford, where he took some courses on “need-finding.” When he saw Gentle and some of my other video and search interfaces, he was immediately convinced that the hours upon hours he spent cutting down stakeholder and user interview footage had been wasted time, that we could do better. We holed up in his garage for a few days and put together a preliminary version of Reduct, stitching together some of my old experiments. When he showed the prototype to an alum from his program the next day, the response was ecstatic and we had our first signed contract the next day.

LAPPG: Can you share with us how you helped with Reduct for the “Walk the Talk” project?

RO: I’ve been collaborating with the LA Poverty Department for many years now. In the process of co-designing the inaugural exhibition at the Skid Row History Museum and Archive in 2015, I inadvertently kicked off a digital archive for the group. We had been talking since then about how and when to bring some of it to the public, online.

During the early days of COVID, the group’s biannual Walk The Talk celebration of community activists was moved online to Zoom, and we decided that this would be a good moment to release an archive. We organized past oral histories and performances in Reduct, and designed a custom public interface to the group’s Reduct project.

One of the most exciting elements of the project has been inviting other scholars, activists, and artists to respond to the archive. They use Reduct to edit a new video out of the collection, which we then add into the public collection.

LAPPG: What is your overall goal for the software you develop?

RO: I’ve been thinking for a long time about how a documentary filmmaker could invite their audience into the editing room. How then an audience can bring their own questions into a well-organized cache of material.

Most people watch much more video than that they produce. This has been changing on the recording and short-form distribution end, but editing is where so much meaning is produced and it’s still such a rarefied skill, especially compared to the impact of video in the world. I’m interested in video editing being normalized into a basic skill known and used by all sorts of professionals in the course of their life and work.

LAPPG: It looks like you are a filmmaker yourself having worked on a project with filmmaker Eyal Sivan. Can you tell us about the documentary you worked on and some of the challenges you ran into?

RO: I worked with Eyal Sivan on Montage Interdit for the 2012 Berlin Documentary Forum. This was a complex project, involving detailed tagging of hundreds of hours of films and interviews.

There were many challenges on that project. First of all, we were working on a very compressed timeframe. Then, we were building all of the tagging and editing interfaces as we were going. They were very rough, and it took a big leap of faith for the professional video editor on the project to go along outside of her familiar tools. Finally, web video in 2012 was much newer and full of rough edges.

I melted my laptop encoding video for that project.

LAPPG: What advice do you have for someone making their first documentary?

RO: Don’t dumb it down.

LAPPG: You seem to always be creating. What is your next project?

RO: Reduct isn’t done just yet! That’s very much still in the foreground for me, but some ideas are starting to kick around in the background. Stay tuned!

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