Page last updated at 12:59 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Tech Know: The art of being human

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News


Ellie Gibson samples the interactive art being produced by Goldsmiths students

Art is a problem.

Not in the sense that it is a waste of money, often unfathomable and occasionally obscene. It is a problem because of all the things people do it is the activity that cannot be easily explained by consulting their biological urges.

It stands out as a uniquely human activity. No other animal goes to such lengths to produce it, consume it and react to it in the way that people do. That's why it is a problem. And a tricky one at that.

Patrick Tresset and Frederic Fol Leymarie are trying to shed light on it using a system called Aikon that aims to unpick and then copy how an artist works. The artist is Mr Tresset who has almost a decade of practice as a portrait artist to call on.

"We're trying to understand what goes on in the mind of the person performing the act of drawing," said Prof Leymarie.

That understanding, gleaned from watching Mr Tresset at work and drawing on his own insights of how he works, has produced a system that uses a robot arm to sketch faces.

Robot arm artist, BBC
The robot arm is crude but can produce works of art

At no point, said Prof Leymarie, was the idea to create photo-realistic reproductions of faces. Instead the roughness of the finished sketches is key.

"It's a cheap robot arm because we are trying to get away from something that's a performance and very well engineered," he said "In part that's because we are trying to capture the different elements and uncertainties that are expected from a human."

One key insight that developing the system has revealed is the difference in the amount of time that artists and non-artists spend looking at a subject when they are drawing.

Non-artists, said Prof Leymarie, spend their time looking at the paper. By contrast, he said, artists look at the subject and trust their hand to do the reproduction.

The collaboration between Mr Tresset and technology has been such that now the robot arm can produce sketches in its own distinctive style.

And, said Prof Leymarie, the collaboration does not end there.

"He can not only use it as a way to explore and understand what he is doing or what other artists are doing," he said. "He can use it as something more powerful.

"It can be used by artists to explore why they end up doing a certain type of art a certain way," he said.

Novel art

Mr Tresset and Prof Leymarie are not alone in using technology to tickle the creativity of artists and others.

At a Digital Expo to show off Goldsmiths College's digital studio, Dan Jones created an installation that helped visitors explore interactive creativity.

It bonded motion capture to a virtual landscape. As a participant moved around the enclosed space, clapped their hands or spoke, the landscape was changed in response.

Mr Jones said the installation was related to the work he is doing to help scientists and artists explore all facets of their creativity.

Interactive art, BBC
Dan Jones' installation lets people interact with a virtual landscape

In a similar way, he said, the creative journey that artists embark on when producing a work is really only one path through the larger landscape of all the things they could create.

"Through a lifetime of practice artists acquire habits and tropes," said Mr Jones. "One way out of that is adopting computational models that supplement their own creative process that can re-shape and re-direct that impulse."

Simulations based around small, smart software programs known as agents can help artists reach those areas of that creative landscape that they would otherwise never visit.

One product of this work is a system that can improvise and jam with musicians.

"What's particularly interesting about it is that it's inherently unpredictable and chaotic," he said. Often it takes musicians to places they have never been before and stretches their ability to improvise, to create.

Mr Jones work is also being applied to the sciences to help a group of researchers tackling leukaemia to understand how stem cells react to the disease. The interaction of visualisation and their deep knowledge of the biology could give them a far greater insight into how that system works.

Dr Mick Grierson, who oversees the work going on at Goldsmiths, said the projects go to the heart of what it means to be a maker, hacker, scientist or artist. And arguably a human. It is all about curiosity, creativity and innovation.

"That's what makes science great, and technology great and art great," he said "It's about playing with ideas.

"You try a few things out and see what happens, then try more and more and you come up with something that is genius," he said.

Only by building it, seeing and shaping it, can they truly understand. Something any and every maker can identify with.

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