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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
'Magic brush' paints visual world
By Nico Macdonald

An electronic paint brush developed in the US is helping children understand the world around them.

Image of a child using the I/O Brush
The brush helps children give meaning to what they see
The I/O Brush is the brainchild of Kimiko Ryokai, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The device allows children to pick up colours and textures from their environment and paint with them on a large digital screen.

Ms Ryokai has dubbed it the I/O Brush as it has an input and an output. The children just call it the magic paint brush and use it in ways she never anticipated.

As a member of the Tangible Media Group at MIT, she seeks to create bridges between the physical world and the virtual environment of computers and networks.

In the context of image-making, she is interested in the different ways people can enter data into computers.

Ms Ryokai wanted to know what would happen if you could literally suck the ink from the environment.

"It is very clear that for young kids you can brush over things and pick up a colour and then paint with it," she says. "The brush is one of the few tools we allow ourselves to be touched by."

With the I/O Brush, almost anything can be a source of ink for painting, even your friend's clothes, face or hair.

Cameras and LEDs

Technically the I/O Brush is relatively simple.

A brown wasn't just a brown, but a brown that came from their favourite teddy bear or friend's hair
Kimiko Ryokai, MIT
But Ms Ryokai's colleague, Stefan Marti, still had to build prototypes, create the programming and electronics, and make the brush robust enough.

At the tip of the brush is a tiny video camera enclosed by a ring-shaped brush. LEDs (light emitting diodes) are used for illumination, and pressure sensors to trigger image capture.

The camera captures one frame in the normal mode, and a few seconds of video in movie mode. The brush "paints" the captured image or movie onto a back-projected touch screen.

In one demonstration, Ms Ryokai picks up a video from the face of a blinking colleague and paints a screen full of winking eyes.

Play time

The MIT researcher took the brush into a local classroom for about five weeks to see how children reacted to it.

"I didn't tell them to run around the classroom and look for colours," she says, "they did it spontaneously."

"One kid would say 'Hmm, I need that colour' and other kids would suggest ideas for sources for the colour."

Image of a child using the I/O Brush
The children associate colours with a story
Ryokai is critical of typical painting programmes created for children.

"A lot of the time kids only end up playing with the clip art that comes with the software, and picking colours only from the computer's palette" she says.

By contrast, the I/O Brush "pushes kids to look around, and explore and investigate the richness of colours that surround us".

She found that pictures contained many personal objects and provoked story-telling about the images, such as where the colour came from, where they got it and what it was about.

"A brown wasn't just a brown, but a brown that came from their favourite teddy bear or friend's hair," she says.

In one exercise they were shown a Matisse painting and were asked where the blue colour might have come from.

"Kids who played with the I/O Brush would say oceans, Jacob's jacket, a lunchbox or someone's pants," she says .

"The blue wasn't just this abstract blue but was blue from a personal object or from their environment."

Flashback stories

Ms Ryokai also wanted to address the difficulty of accessing and manipulating digital images captured in other ways, such as those from digital cameras.

By putting the camera into a paint brush, you are no longer point and shooting and thinking about capturing the environment, but using the environment to create something very new
Kimiko Ryokai, MIT
Usually a camera has to be connected to a computer, the image downloaded, and then opened in appropriate editing software.

Traditional editing packages are limited to very traditional photo processing steps such as cropping and manipulating colours, she says.

"It's not about taking pictures and then printing that image so you can frame it in your photo frame," Ms Ryokai explains.

"It is about people thinking about the abundance of colours, the abundance of light, the different textures that we are surrounded by, and using these as source of ink."

"By putting the camera into a paint brush, you are no longer pointing and shooting and thinking about capturing the environment, but using the environment to create something very new."

Since the classroom experiments, Ms Ryokai and Mr Marti have added new features. It now records the sound while the brush is capturing, and keeps the five seconds of video recorded prior to each capture.

The audio and video are played when someone touches a colour or texture on the screen, giving a "flashback" to what was happening at the time, adding a layer of "secret meaning", says Ms Ryokai.

They have also added a feature to enable people to touch the canvas to reveal where a colour came from.

The brush is a semi-permanent exhibit at the Ars Electronica Center's Museum of the Future in Linz, Austria.

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