Life-Altering Art
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 6 (June 2004)

Life-Altering Art

For most new technologies, proof-of-concept presentations are often dry demos of basic research in search of an application. In computer graphics, they can be works of art.

That's clearly the case for the latest graphics research that will be on display in the Emerging Technologies gallery at the upcoming SIGGRAPH 2004 conference. In fact, of the more than 30 installations—which showcase the brightest new technologies to spring from the world's top academic and corporate labs—a third are defined as art.

Does this high percentage of art-related projects suggest a lack of value of these technologies? Not at all, contends Heather Elliott-Famularo, chair of this year's Emerging Technologies exhibit and assistant professor of digital arts at Bowling Green State University. "The art emphasis was deliberately encouraged to demonstrate the potential of the technologies and spark new applications," she says. Here are several examples that illustrate the theme:

Calm Computing: An interactive display called "Lumen" (right) presents slowly changing organic motions intended to produce an aesthetically pleasing and calming effect on viewers. Users run their fingers over a "smart-skin" surface containing motion sensors, and a series of illuminated cylinders rise and fall accordingly. The system, developed by Ivan Poupyrev and colleagues at Sony's Computer Science Lab in Japan, can be scaled up to create wall-size displays for home or office environments.

Wearable Art: Using sound-activated LEDs and electro-luminescent wires that can be applied to fabric, a novel concept called "HearWear" creates moving light patterns on clothing from noises in the environment. Developed by Younghui Kim and Milena Iossifova of Missing Pixel/Absurdee, the system uses a sound-recognition module to characterize noise patterns and light the LEDs and wires accordingly—in this case, to create flashing patterns on a ladies' skirt (right). The device can also be used in concerts, for example, so that performers' costumes could be illuminated interactively by their music.

Interactive Impressionism: A real-time painting technique, created by Daniel Shiffman at the Tisch School of the Arts, "Swarm" captures a live-video image of a viewer and automatically alters the colors on the screen according to what the camera sees. Based on Craig Reynolds' Boids flocking-behavior model, the painterly rendering algorithm scrambles and smears specific areas of the screen. Swarm can be used to enhance public and private spaces—such as art galleries, lobbies, conference rooms, homes, and so forth—with artwork that lets viewers see themselves inside impressionistic portraits (right).

Clock Video: Rather than simply telling the current time, this unique clock (right) uses video camera feeds to display recent events. Called "Last," the timepiece presents a brief history of time using hands that sweep around three concentric rings, with the outermost ring indicating seconds, the middle ring minutes, and the innermost ring hours. The rings contain imagery sent from live video cameras, and as hands rotate around the rings, they leave a trace of what has transpired in front of the cameras during the last minute, hour, or half day. For instance, a camera pointing at the sky can display a record of cloud cover at that location. The feed can be from any source, such as a camera mounted on the clock itself, a remote camera streaming video over the Internet, or a TV signal feeding images directly to the clock. Developed by Jussi Angesleva of Media Lab Europe and Ross Cooper of Ross Cooper Studios, Last can display a record of local, remote, and media events.

Are there more practical uses that these new technologies could eventually serve? Poupyrev believes the smart-skin technology in the "Lumen" calm-computing installation might eventually enable people to both see and touch each other over a network. Kim thinks that "HearWear" could include devices that broadcast sound data and create real-time noise maps that raise public awareness of noise pollution. Shiffman foresees "Swarm" being used to automatically generate special effects in films, perhaps for dream or title sequences. And Angesleva envisions that "Last" could be used to open a channel between remote places, so friends and family members could continually sense each other's presence, or that it could be used to show the dynamics of a given space—for example, to show a recent history of traffic patterns on a highway.

For now, these emerging technologies remain more in the artistic realm. But it doesn't take much imagination to see how they could cross over to be of greater utility. Merging art and technology may well be the key to creating the most successful applications of all. Indeed, it was with this notion in mind that Elliott-Famularo put out a call for participation in the Emerging Technologies gallery and encouraged submissions "that enhance life, both physically, through gadgets, and spiritually, through art."

The submissions cited here appear to have achieved that goal. And while they may be enhancing life only as art, perhaps technologies that create a sense of calm or that entertain or that convey information in new ways are enough of an end in themselves.

Phil LoPiccolo