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Is the Eyewriter a tool for creating or rather for reinterpreting a form of creation?

“Part of our interest in technology is on technology that empowers people” -Graffiti Research Lab

Reminder– the Eyewriter project is a low-cost, open source eye-tracking system+custom software that allows graffiti writers and artists with ALS paralysis to draw with light projected on large surfaces, using only their eyes. The project was developed to help L.A.-based graffiti artist TemptOne, by a team of artists and software programmers led by Zach Lieberman. The core development team consists of members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Research Lab [GRL have a great previous project that’s related--LaserTag].

The technical stuff—how it works

The Eyewriter software has three parts —

  • an eye tracking software
  • a drawing software designed for drawing with eye movements.
  • a system that projects the tag on a physical surface

The softwarehas been developed using openFrameworks, a cross library for creative development also co-founded by Lieberman.

Eye-Tracking Software

“Eye tracking is the process of measuring either the point of gaze (“where we are looking”) or the motion of an eye relative to the head. An eye tracker is a device for measuring eye positions and eye movement.” (Wikipedia) The concept has been around for quite a while—scientists have worked with apparatuses to record the gaze since the early 20th century.

What Lieberman’s software does is interpret the movement of the eye’s pupil as the cursor on the screen of a program for drawing. The pupil is recorded by a single camera mounted on a pair of glasses and focuses on one eye, with infrared LEDs that illuminate the eye and create a dark pupil effect. The software reads the image from the camera and interprets the pupil as a black dot positioned on a grid, which can move as a mouse coursor that’s been guided with the eye instead of with the hand.

The software follows this process:

  • It detects and tracks the position of the pupil from the incoming camera or video image,
  • It then callibrates the tracked eye with its position on the computer screen, using the grid to transform the point of the gaze into coordinates.

A person wearing the glasses for the first time has to focus on a sequence of points randomly displayed on the screen. When the sequence is finished, the two sets of data are used to interpolate where the eye positions are located in relation to the screen.

Eye-Drawing Software

After the sequence is completed, the gaze is what operates the tools on the drawing stage. This program allows you to draw, manipulate and style a tag designed on the screen. Instead of point and click, it uses a time-based interface so that the “click” effect is triggered by focusing the eye on a position for a few seconds. This way the user selects/deselects commands and tools, and initiates/finishes the traces on the grid.

The program guides the user through the process of creating a tag, taking him step by step through tracing the letters, their size, stroke, shadowing, coloring, and special effects. It allows to paste in previous tags and uploads the finished work directly to both the hard drive and a FTP for projection, if desired.  The amount of work that the eyes have to do in order to complete a tag is very straining, so the team’s aim is to keep upgrading the program to reduce the amount of time spent doing unnecessary tasks.

Projection

The finalized tags are saved into an FTP to be projected on a surface. To to this, the software uses GFL- Graffiti Markup Language– created by the team specifically for this project. GFL allows the replay of the action as the tag is being “painted” on the wall, instead of just casting a static, finalized image as if it were a slide.

Here you can see TemptOne’s tags taking over L.A.


Where has it gone?

The long-term goal is to create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artist and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open source research to creatively connect and make eye art. The code is available at http://code.google.com/p/eyewriter, and they have caught the attention of people interested in donating and collaborating with design and programming.

TemptOne did his first EyeTag on August 2009. Since then, his tags are uploaded directly from his Eyewriter to here: http://fffff.at/tempt1/photos/eyetags/ The project has been at the BLK River Festival in Vienna, CREAM International Festival for Arts and Media in Yokohama, Japan; the Nuart festival in Norway, and was completely re-fabricated in January at the Bombay TechFest 2009.

YouTube Preview Image

And how is the Eyewriter impacting graffiti?

There is no doubt that the Eyewriter provides patients who suffer from ALS with a unique form of expression that allows the creative potential to flow in spite of the physical barriers. The possibilities are endless and the impact huge. But what happens to graffiti when it is executed through the Eyewriter? How is this technique transformed?

To some, graffiti is an art form worthy of display in galleries and exhibitions; to others it is merely vandalism. It is usually employed as a strong form of communication. In any case, it is a form of appropriation of the public space linked to social and political messages and moved by a subversive intention—it is an illegal activity of an invasive nature that has a competitive spirit and seeks fame.

The Eyewriter’s projections with light strip graffiti of its permanent nature and transform it into an ephemeral form of expression. The gang is expanded to include the design and production team, who may play a more important role than the fellow taggers. The act of tagging necessarily loses spontaneity to become a more planned, organized activity. The actual moment of creation is documented and broadcasted—everyone knows who the tagger is, his location and the exact moment of action. By participating in festivals, graffiti is incorporated into an institutionalized arts scene.

Seen through McLuhan’s lens, a medium can’t be dissociated from the message it carries, and the use that is given to any medium is not as transcendental as the fact that “the medium shapes and controls the scale and form of human action.” How is this new media shaping graffiti as a particular form of action? Can we understand it as a process of cultural transcoding in Lev Manovich’s sense— “To transcode is to translate something into another format. Cultural categories and concepts are substituted by new ones, on the level of meaning and/or language.” (The Language of New Media, 47)

I’m having a hard time trying to formulate this question. I guess I’m trying to understand how new media triggers change and transformation that goes beyond its immediate impact on the subject of action. I’m trying to understand, in this particular case, how is technology affecting the message?

Just in: Zach Lieberman has been super kind and accepted to meet this week to talk about the project. I hope to go further into these questions, and any other inquires that you guys can think of are much welcomed and appreciated.