by software artist Scott Draves. You may also follow me on google+ or twitter, buy art, or join me on facebook.

July 12, 2004

Sheep in Shining Armor

Discover Magazine covered Electric Sheep on page 26 of Volume 25 Number 8 in a story by Steven Johnson on distributed computing. The story isn't on their web site and I don't know if it ever will be, so I went ahead and typed in the relevant text (hence mistakes are mine). I don't have a scanner yet and my digicam is broken, but I managed to get this picture of the layout.
Distributed computing also has an aesthetic side. Consider the Electric Sheep project, dreamed up by San Francisco artist and programmer Scott Draves. The program has a "hall of mirrors" quality to it. It's a screen saver that generates new screen savers: incandescent fractal animations that twirl on the computer screen with a pulsing intensity. Draves wrote the original cod for the graphics, which he called a fractal flame algorithm, more than a decade ago. It was capable of generating mesmerizing animations, but there was a catch. He needed a farm of high-end computers and a few months to do the rendering just to generate a single 10-second sequence.

Draves's software code was eventually incorporated into a popular video-editing program called After Effects. One day in 1999 he received in the mail a videotape that showcased a series of fractal flames that someone had rendered on top-of-the-line machines. "I was really impressed with it," Draves says. "It was beautiful. One night, I was watching it with my friend, and I thought, 'Wow, I wish I could do this on my own, but I only have this stinky little PC.' It would take months to render it, let alone design it. SETI@home had just been announced, and the distributed-computing idea was in the air. So I thought, 'Let's apply that idea to rendering fractal flames.'"

Draves added a Darwinian twist. Not only would individuals contribute th unused processing cycles of their personal computers to rendering the animations, they'd also vote on the aesthetic merits of individual animations. Draves called these animations sheep in homage to the classic Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which became the basis for the movie Blade Runner. Sheep that receive disproportionate number of positive votes pass on some of their visual characteristics to the next generation of sheep, while unpopular sequences have their traits die off. The result is a dual positive-feedback loop. As more would-be artists participate in the project, the rendering time decreases and the animations become increasingly visually pleasing.

The difference between the first-generation sheep and the latest incarnation is a vivid lesson in the power of evolution. The initial runs look like snowflakes or crystals: elegant but frozen in the their architecture. The latest runs look like an intoxicating blend of coral reef and fireworks display. They look alive.

Draves even sells high-resolution DVDs of his most accomplished sheep. In a strange way, you can think of what he does as the digital-age equivalent of farming: He takes a precious unused resource (sunlight, processor cycles), collaborates with a group of willing partners (plants growing fruit, computer users voting on attractive sheep), and persuades people to pay for the goods that he harvests.

addendum: it finally appeared on their website. Posted by spot at July 12, 2004 01:41 PM
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