25 years ago, as a young PhD student, Scott Draves invented an algorithm that uses thousands of parameters and millions of variables to make digital images. The images were in a style that had never been seen before. They had such a high degree of detail that they looked organic, like they could have been seen with a microscope or a telescope. The images made by this algorithm brought to mind many natural phenomena, and yet in spite of that, were made only, and purely, with mathematics and code.
Scott Draves open-sourced this code in 1992, naming it the Fractal Flame algorithm, and subsequently saw the code expanded by the community, user interfaces built around it, and completely reimplemented by others in both commercial and free graphics software packages. This is what happens when open source software goes viral. It is now commonly in use by designers all over the world. You have seen its output on books, on album covers, and in movies and advertisements, even if you have never before heard the name Scott Draves.
In 1999, Draves expanded the Fractal Flame algorithm to animate these images. He implemented a server in perl, unix, and C to run a distributed render farm. One image rendered by this algorithm is like a rose. It takes about an hour to render on today’s computers. A 30 frame-per-second, 90-second long video clip is like a rosebush with 2700 roses. Each rosebush would take three months to make on one computer, which is how the Electric Sheep screensaver got started. It uses the idle time on computers all over the world to render these animations and then brings them back to the server, creating a virtual supercomputer. Draves’ network algorithm detects errors, rerenders bad frames, and then assembles the millions of finished frames in the right order to make video clips. It then makes multiple interstitial videos to create a seamless and smoothly-morphing viewing experience between the clips, an infinite and nonrepeating animation. Finally, it sends the video clips back to the users so they can see the visual results of their collective cognition and computer processing time.
Scott Draves – Electric Sheep: a self-perpetuating system for the production of algorithmic art
A genetic algorithm system of mating and breeding images inspired by Darwinian evolution is continually generating new designs. Variety in the genetic system is introduced by mutations, crossover, and crowdsourced submissions. The community of users, which is nearly half a million strong, creates the fitness function by voting on which images and animations deserve to have their genetics preserved for the next generation and which should die without reproducing.
The playback system for the Electric Sheep takes the collection of assembled videos and plays them back in a continuously morphing, seamless and rearranging order. The free screensaver is the draft mode, at TV resolution. The premium Gold Sheep are at high def, 720p, and in slower motion. And Scott Draves makes collector’s edition videos for museums, institutions, and private collections. These animations move slowly from one design to the next over minutes and days, at flawlessly compressed 1080p and 4K.
In our rose analogy, watching the videos play-back on the shuffle system is like walking through a garden made up of hundreds of rose-bushes. The playback software takes us down various garden paths, where we may revisit a rosebush many times, and see others only once or twice. For one of Draves’ limited edition artworks, to see all the rose-bushes would require wandering around in the garden – that is, watching the art – for months. But the free screensaver has been running continuously since 1999 – producing terabytes of video that would take a lifetime to explore.
The Flame algorithm is truly unique in how it can independently produce such a wide range of designs. It is not just an algorithm but a meta-algorithm that defines a language for expressing imagery: a visual language.
Since the launch of the Flame algorithm 25 years ago, Scott Draves has progressed from making roses to making rose-bushes to making gardens, using the Electric Sheep as his production studio. The artistic output instantiates in multiple modalities such as a website, the free client-server screensaver, iPad and Android apps, immersive projection environments, limited edition collectible works, commercial licensing, and a premium (paid) screensaver currently in development. The system Draves built is unique within the generative art category because it generates new art independently and has a proven track record of doing so for over fifteen years. It is also self- perpetuating, a key component in the concept of artificial life. After decades of requiring sponsorship, it is now funding its own self-improvement. And Draves creates new modalities as technology advances, giving his art new vehicles to reach larger audiences.
The Electric Sheep represents half a lifetime of work on the complex problems of teaching computers how to draw and develop an artificial creative intelligence. Its creator Scott Draves considers it to be a conceptual artwork in and of itself – a self-perpetuating system for the production of algorithmic art.
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