What does technology want?

I’ve been researching technology on a philosophical level and came across this TED talk by Kevin Kelly. Kelly is an editor at WIRED magazine, but more relevant to this conversation, he was the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. The WEC was originally published in printed form, but quickly moved online when the Internet became a thing, and was concerned with various DIY, counterculture, or pro-environment product reviews and essays. It never actually succeeded in containing the whole Earth, but as a sort of philosophical precursor to the World Wide Web it encouraged sharing, openness and democracy (that the Internet is any of these things is a myth [possible paywall], but that’s another discussion).

Some interesting takeaways from this talk are how Kelly equates technology’s evolution to biological evolution. Tech, like biology, moves toward diversity and complexity.He even goes so far as to name technology the Earth’s 7th kingdom (the official six kingdoms are plants, animals, fungi, protists, archaebacteria, and eubacteria). Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene posits that the idea that genes have a “selfishness” to them in that they look out for their own best interests, and technology could be seen to have that same selfishness; It wants to proliferate.

Technology cannot be destroyed, only slowed down. Everything from a random page in a mail-order catalog from a hundred years ago is still available today in some form or another. To conclude, Kelly suggests we have a moral obligation to continue advancing and creating new technologies because it allows humans to reveal their best qualities (also worst, but again that’s another discussion). Imagine Van Gogh without the invention of oil paint, or Hitchcock without the invention of film. Where would our culture be without technological progress?

We’ve cooled considerably in our technological optimism in the past several decades; we’re a long way from viewing human progress through the rose-colored glasses represented by Walt Disney’s ever hopeful and wondrous Carousel of Progress.

And that makes me a little sad. Speaking of Disney, I remember growing up in the 1980s and visiting Epcot for the first time. I couldn’t wait for the future of automated home and robot butlers. Well, now I have Nest and Hue to automate my home, and Roomba to vacuum my floors. So now what do I look forward to?

3D Scanning & Modeling Consultation Notes

Thanks to Wasfi for taking notes during our 3D-scanning introductory meeting. I’ve expanded a couple things and added some more resources that I’m aware of.

  • Main people involved
    • From SIF
      • Nathan Sharratt <nsharratt1@gsu.edu>
      • Joe Hurley <jhurley@gsu.edu>
      • Brennan Collins <brennan@gsu.edu>
    • Other Contacts
      • Bryan Sinclair <bsinclair@gsu.edu>
      • Robin Wharton <robin.s.wharton@gmail.com>
  • Resources Available at CURVE and CII (Center for Instructional Innovation)
    • Hardware at GSU (available in the library and CURVE; linked to relevant sites)
      • Laser Scanners inside CURVE
      • FARO Scanner
      • Regular cameras on smartphones or DSLRs work too (DSLRs offered by the Library, Digital Aquarium, and CII)
      • 3D tools at Sculpture – Area Coordinator Mike Wsol <mwsol@gsu.edu>
        • CNC Shopbot Router
        • CNC Plasma Cutter
        • Laser Cutter
        • 3D Scanner
  • 3D scanning problems and solutions
    • Limitations
      • Artifacts in scans
      • Web embedded scan result in loss of resolution
      • Issues with rendering time
      • Some scanners restrict sizes of objects (CURVE laser scanners can only take up to certain size objects)
    • Alleviations
      • Scanning with certain methods will help alleviate artifacts
      • High quality connections or just using the software used to make it for scanning will help with resolution.
      • Using high-end computers available through the university will help with rendering times
      • Use a camera (no restrictions but less accurate) or another scanner
  • Scholarship and Research Grants
    • Scholarship
      • Victoria, Canada classes
    • Monetary
      • Creative Media Industries grant
      • Tech Fee
      • Grants through University Research (includes the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation)

EDGE Magazine — The grade is not the end.

We’ve been having some exciting meetings about EDGE, the upcoming online undergraduate research magazine. It isn’t planned to launch until next fall, but meanwhile we’re building the framework and experimenting with website structure and formatting. We want to make it as easy as possible for students and faculty to present work, and we want to make it as visually appealing as well. Since I’m in charge of creative aspects, I’m looking into ways to have student input into the visual elements, for example having a logo that changes frequently (like the Google Doodles) and is submitted by students, and a resource of student-submitted stock photography or illustrated ledes (the header image for an article).

We want EDGE to be a place for undergrads and professors to extend the reach of student work. Usually, once you submit a project for grading, it’s the end of the road. EDGE will be “outward facing,” meaning it’s promoted to those outside GSU as well, so it’s a way to give that work new legs, and to present it to prospective and existing students, alumni, working professionals and who knows who else?

Since we’re still in the planning stages, there’s opportunity for fellow SIFers to make suggestions or submit cool undergraduate work that we can use to build a prototype site. The more diverse the types of content we have to play with at the start, the more flexible and effective the magazine will be at launch. If you would like to contribute any of the above for consideration for inclusion, let me or Valerie know!

3D Printing Exhibit at MoDA is a must see

Since the EDGE magazine project is still in the planning stages, I thought I’d start out this semester by talking about an exhibition I saw recently that I highly recommend.

Science and medical exhibition room panorama.
Science and medical exhibition room displays everything from 3d printers in space to puppy prosthetics.

In Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future, The Museum of Design Atlanta is presenting an educational examination of the past, present, and future of 3D printing. The importance of 3D printing can’t be overstated, and the exhibition offers up a great overview of the technology and what it can do, but as a panel of informative text so eloquently states, “the dream of the Star Trek Replicator may not be immediately at hand.”

3d printed prosthetic arms.
3d printed prosthetic arms.

3D printing technology and definitions can get highly complex, but as a general primer for the uninitiated, 3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing that creates forms by stacking and binding layers of material from the ground up until the desired form is reached–as opposed to subtractive manufacturing like CNC routers or laser cutters, which removes raw material to create the intended form. In art terms, you could think of it like layering coils of wet clay to form a ceramic pot (additive), versus carving a marble block (subtractive).

Makerbot 3D Printer
Makerbot 3D Printer

The most common form of 3D printing for the average consumer is called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and is analogous to a computerized hot glue gun. This is the Makerbot you might have heard about, and most of the printers at GSU. A digital 3d model is sliced by software into lots of very small layers, which are then sent as instructions to the printer. Plastic filament in spools of (typically) plant-based PLA or petrol-based ABS (though many new materials are emerging, like brick, wood, metal and even pancake batter), is pushed through a heating element to its melting point, then extruded through a nozzle onto a build platform. The nozzle then moves up slightly, and repeats the process, continuing until the object is complete. A crucial requirement for 3D-printing material is that it cools quickly enough that by the time the nozzle is finished extruding its layer and moves up to the next, it can support the layers above.

Pancakebot extrudes batter onto a hotplate for custom pancakes.
Pancakebot extrudes batter onto a hotplate for custom pancakes.


MoDA has dedicated two rooms and a hallway to the exhibit, with gobs of informational text and video that showcase examples of 3D printing in several areas, including space exploration, medical, architecture, product design, and fashion. The only art-for-art’s-sake display I saw was a short stop-motion animated film by Gilles-Alexandre Deschaud called, Chase Me, where a monochrome ukulele-playing girl is chased by some malevolent blob of nastiness. Hijinks ensue. The film used what’s called replacement animation, where instead of animating a single articulated puppet bit by bit for each frame, character statues were printed whole for every single frame in whatever pose was needed and swapped out each time a new frame was shot, resulting in probably hundreds of individual character figures (the Jack Skellington character from A Nightmare Before Christmas used a combination of puppet and replacement: his body was articulated but 400 unique heads were created to swap in and out each frame to create his facial animation). Several were on display next to a monitor showing the video, including eight slightly-different versions of the girl lined up in a row. I assume from context that this was intended to show all the parts needed to execute an animated walk cycle, but a couple were out of order and listing dangerously close to falling over. This exemplifies a common occurrence throughout the exhibit, where the rough edges start showing through from wear and tear, tarnishing the polish of the initial presentation. I’m surprised everything’s held up as well as it has considering how many kids have gone through the place.

3d printed dress
3d printed dress

There are numerous examples of 3D-printed objects, from DIY prosthetics to a 3D-printed dress to giant (in 3D printing scale) architectural forms and even a desktop bio-printer. A borg of various brands and kinds of desktop 3D printers were whirring away throughout the exhibit. Some were printing parts for a 3D-printed puzzle-chair, others looked like parts for a prosthetic hand, and others I couldn’t discern at all because they were currently a mess of spaghetti-like strands. An on-site technician was vigorously running around trying to keep up with all the printer failures, and having built and used my own 3D printers, I didn’t envy him his task. This brings us back to our initial concern: though 3D printers are revolutionizing production, they’re not yet appliances. You don’t have to troubleshoot your toaster, or know how sugars caramelize with heat to create toast. You just put in your bread and out comes delicious and tasty toast. Not so with 3D printing.

IMG_2092 IMG_2091

If toasters were at the technological level of a typical consumer 3D printer, the toast-making process would be much different. First, you’d have to make your own bread. Sure, you could probably find someone who could make the bread for you but if you want true production freedom you need to invest in learning how to make bread in its various forms using specific bread-making tools and techniques–In 3D printing, you can download 3D files that someone else made, but if you want to make your own unique objects, you have to learn 3D CAD software. Next, you have to know how your particular toaster works, and coordinate your toasters heat, time, and spring tension to perfectly match your particular piece of bread’s chemistry. Get something wrong and you have to toss your ruined bread and start over–In 3D printing, each material melts at specific temperatures, and even the dyes used in plastic filament can cause the heat requirement to vary by degrees. Get the temperature wrong and your print is ruined. Then, once you’ve got your bread’s protein chemistry and your toaster’s electronic settings synced up, you’re ready to toast. Insert slice, push lever. But you can’t leave yet. Oh no. You have to sit there and watch the toaster start toasting for at least the first cycle, otherwise the bread could get jammed, or fall out of the toaster entirely, or decompose into its component parts–In 3D printing, the first layer is crucial, if it doesn’t go well, the rest of the print likely won’t either, and you’ll have to start over. Or, sometimes the print gets unstuck from the print bed, and you can’t just put it back on and continue where you left off, you have to start over and toss the ruined print. Now that you’re sure your everything is running smoothly, you can let the toaster toast that yummy bread and go do something else. For 3-20 hours. Or more–it’s called rapid prototyping, but “rapid” is a very relative term. Oh, and at any point during the toasting process, your toaster might screw up your bread, and you have to toss it and start over, but not before troubleshooting and repairing your toaster yourself. Good luck on the forums.

Abraham Lincoln Death Mask
Abraham Lincoln Death Mask

Don’t let me nightmare toaster story deter you from the potential and wonderfulness that is 3D printing. Manufacturers are getting closer and closer to that appliance stage, so it won’t be long before we all have desktop 3D printers in our homes next to our toasters and inkjet printers. MoDA has presented an almost-comprehensive survey of 3D printing; I would have liked to have seen more examples of purely artistic uses of 3D printers, but regardless, Designers, Makers, Users: 3D Printing the Future is a must see for all ages and levels of technical savvy.


SIF Status Check – How’s It Going? How Could It Be Going?

I recently had a meeting with a high-ranking CDC scientist and an artist who have formed a company that uses new modes of thinking and structural hierarchies to encourage actionable innovation. The goal is to create products that make the world a better place by truly blending art, science, and technology in a way that nurtures and supports, in one example, the “dysfunctional genius” who may have great ideas but doesn’t have the wherewithal to develop those ideas. The company would pull together a wide range of thinkers and professionals who would get together to hear idea pitches, then decide if the idea was something they want to invest in and help develop. If the idea catches on and the product is successful, those on the development team share in the rewards. The key philosophy is focused more on “Here is what I can offer,” and less on, “Here’s what we want you to do.” A bottom-up investment as opposed to a top-down assignment.

The similarities to the SIF concept were readily apparent. So I began to think about SIF as a whole, what it means, how it functions, what its goals are, etc.  And whether this idea of an “investment chip” could be useful for SIF (I find it very appealing). Which led me down the rabbit hole of, “Well, what else could be useful to SIF?”

So it led me to want to ask everyone for an unofficial request for feedback on the SIF program overall. Please comment, or feel free to send me feedback anonymously if that’s more comfortable for you: nsharratt1@gsu.edu.

How’s it going for you? Is it meeting your expectations? If so, in what ways? If not, how do you think it could be improved?

#nicehashtag – Building a data-driven sculpture

Since early fall 2014 I’ve been working on a data-driven sculpture for HLN called “#nicehashtag” that is now installed in the CNN World Headquarters in here in Atlanta (if you take the Inside CNN tour you’ll see it outside Studio 7).

Programmable Hue bulbs change color to reflect realtime sentiment analysis of Twitter. The algorithm accesses Twitter every few seconds and pulls the most recent tweet into its program, determines whether the tweet is positive, neutral, or negative, then compares it to previous tweets and converts it into a percentage that it stores in memory. When that percentage reaches a certain threshold, the color changes.

digital signage
#nicehashtag digital signage explains the project and color coding for viewers.

My goal with this project was to consider how we use technology to interact with each other, and how that affects our emotional connections. Screens have enhanced and expanded our communication capabilities enormously, but there are still concerns about what it does to our ability to empathize with others. #nicehashtag is a physical representation of internet emotion, at least within the Twitterverse.

The challenge with any technologically-enhanced artwork is that the novelty of the tech will overpower the concept that (hopefully) supports it. Using tech in art just because it’s there is seductive but also dangerous for the above reason.

Here are some behind-the scenes pictures:

Making Things From Discards – Vintage Craft Book Inspires Hi-Tech Art – Part 1

To continue from my previous post, I’ve been working on artwork that explores the relationships between craft and art as viewed through modern technological tools, specifically 3D-scanning and -Printing, and what that means in terms of gender roles and identity.

I’m choosing vintage craft books and executing the “creative” projects they contain in step by step instructions, but substituting computers and digital production methods for scissors and glue. My first project comes from the book, Making Things From Discards by Hazel Pearson Williams, first published in the mid-1960s.

Making Things From Discards

The book was targeted toward “housewives,” and indeed the introduction page is rife with outdated attitudes toward labor and gender roles, placing an excess of leisure time as a primary obstacle to be overcome through craftwork.

Introduction PageThis got me thinking about what type of craft is socially acceptable for each gender to assume as their leisure work, both then and now. How have these attitudes changed, or have they?

In the mid- to late-20th century, women, as this book illustrates, can be seen to acceptably occupy themselves with what to me seems like “soft” craft: sewing, knitting, scrapbooking, floral arranging, etc. While men are confined to “hard” craft: woodworking, metalsmithing, automotive repair, etc. Women decorate; men build. These social attitudes are built upon the notion that women are somehow less than men, inherently. For a man to perform a woman’s craft or work is seen as being “unmanly,” and confers a lesser status upon that man (again according to prevailing social mores). Conversely, women are seen to be physically less able to perform “hard” craft, due to their apparently delicate nature, lack of physical strength, or some other such justification. While some work does indeed require a certain amount of strength to perform, and may eliminate some less-strong women from performing, that work would also eliminate less-strong men, and shows that cultural, not physical forces, are at work.

Moving into the modern era (though not limited to it) I see less of a gender binary in many areas, but ones that seem to hang on are those associated with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, which are still predominantly male. In my research into 3D printing and scanning, the vast majority of makers and tinkers are male. Being a male myself I seem to fall into this demographic as well, though I don’t ascribe to any belief that women are less in any way, nor that doing traditional “women’s” work somehow lessens my or anyone else’s status.

For the purposes of making this art, I’ll assume the role of a man creating craft intended for 1960s women using technology intended for everyone but still dominated by men. I’ll follow the instructions in the above craft book (the paradox of being creative by following exact instructions is also something I’m exploring) starting with the traditional material, in this case foam egg cartons and meat trays, but I’ll import those materials into the computer using a 3D scanner, then manipulate those “raw” materials in a 3D modeling program to execute the steps prescribed in the book, ultimately 3D printing the result.


Eventually, I’ll create something (hopefully) as wonderful as this egg-carton peacock, shown above. I’ll make something a little less complex to start, like a daffodil flower.

IMG_6054Now that I have my project, I started by experimenting with ways to scan my egg carton using an Xbox Kinect sensor, below I tried hanging it from filament line.



Here, you can see the raw scanning data when I had the carton on a table. Green is good scan data, red is bad data. Egg Carton 3D-Scan Data.

And here is one of the first final models 3D-Scanned Egg Carton Mesh.

Next step is building the flower!


Tech for Artists First Project – Egg-Carton Peacock

With the goal of bringing interdisciplinary, data-driven tools to artists, my first step is to learn the tech myself and to create proof-of-concept artworks as demonstration examples, and then lead workshops for interested artist students about how they can use these tools in their own artistic practice.

Project 1: Agisoft Photoscan

My first tech exploration is the process of 3D photometric scanning using Agisoft Photoscan, and then 3D print a sculpture based on manipulations of that scan. I thought this would be a good transition tech for artists since it is so visual and deals with real-world applications where big-data and similar tech seem abstract and untouchable (at first).

My first artwork will conceptually explore how 3D printing and scanning fit into the art/craft dialectic and how gender roles are defined. Traditionally, “craft” has been assigned primarily to the female gender, especially decorative and soft-material crafts like embroidering or floral arranging. Men have engendered hard craft, using materials like wood and metal that have practical uses. With the advent of at-home production using complex and technical 3D printers, men have traditionally dominated the genre for whatever reason. Now, in a role reversal, 3D printers on the consumer level are overwhelmingly known to create either parts for building and engineering, or decorative trinkets and gadgets.

Using a craftbook from the 1970s written specifically for “housewives with leisure time,” I’ll recreate one of the projects using new technology. Specifically, I’ll 3D scan a foam egg carton, then in the computer attempt to use the virtual modeling tools as if they were real-world tools to follow the steps in the book to create a decorative peacock. The result will be 3D printed and highlight the mutations that occur from multiple role transpositions and translations.

Future posts will outline the process.

3-d printed sculpture by Nathan Sharratt, 3d scanned with an Xbox Kinect sensor.

Giving Artists New Tools Through Science And Technology

Building connections between seemingly disparate areas is one of the joys of being an artist. It’s also one of the biggest challenges. Conceptually, artists are trained (or train themselves) to look at topics from multiple angles and to build relationships that express the nuances of the proverbial “human condition” (one of my least-favorite artspeak terms, though it seems appropriate in this context). We take input from the world around us, process it through the lense of our personal experiences and knowledge, then spit it out in some novel way as artwork.

Art schools are generally pretty good at giving artists artistic tools, but the focus tends to be on traditional art-making practice and thinking. Even new-media programs seem to focus on accepted art and design technology, such as Adobe Photoshop and the like. But what happens when an artist wants to expand their research into scientific fields, or access big data? The tools are out there, but the learning curve is so steep as to be seen as insurmountable. I’ve heard from multiple artists that they’d love to access primary sources of information, but dont know how or where to look. Consequently they end up relying on possibly inaccurate second- or third-hand information, with the caveat that it’s okay because it’s art, not science. To a certain extent that’s true: (probably) no one’s going to die if an artist uses bad or incomplete data. However, art can expose and educate us to experience and information in ways that no spreadsheet could, and it connects us to each other by making us aware of perspectives that may differ from our own.

Here at GSU, the art program exists under the umbrella of the School of Arts & Sciences, but there is rarely any overlap unless an individual student wants to take an elective class or slog through the paperwork and approval process for more detailed extra-departmental collaboration. But then the artist is limited to the schedule and interest level of their collaborator, who is busy with their own research and agenda. So it seems that the best way for the artist (aside from a team of dedicated collaborators) is to access the data themselves. It’s certainly possible, there’s a heckuvalot of data out there, and the scientists seem to have no issue accessing it, with tools and technology dedicated to specialized information tasks.

But where does the artist start who wants to consider census data from 1792 with geographical markers? How do scientists make those beautiful infographics that correlate environmental legislation with global warming trends? How do I use ArcGIS or Google Earth in my artwork? How do you make abstract animations in Processing that interact with viewers based on body movement? How do 3d scanners work, and how can I use those scans to create artwork? What type of 3d scanning should I use for a particular project? Is 3d-printing technology useful for art yet?

As a SIF, I’d like to begin to bridge these gaps by collaborating with SIFs from geostudies, archaeology, computer science and elsewhere to create artworks using their technology and information tools. Once prototype projects have been completed, I’ll present the documented process used to achieve the results to artists who are interested.

3D Printing and the Art/Kitsch Divide

That the debate over the art/kitsch divide has been theorized since at leat the 1930s shows that the supposed divide is arbitrary and the argument then breaks down into relativism. Like industrial culture production, the argument itself is of itself. To exist, it must already belong to the existing argument, otherwise it has no historical reference and the argument collapses. Unlike craft, kitsch cannot be defined by the intent of its creator. It is an outward-inward categorization that ignores embedded meaning planted by the creator. It is instead demarcated by an outside observer, who judges it to have no “pure” cultural value. Whether this is due to funcionality, quantity, or aesthetics, the judge claims it lacking in qualities needed to elevate it into true art. In modern times, the art/not art battle rages on through technology-based art.

The industrialization of culture, specifically post-war culture, wherein normative benchmarks measure the acceptable deviation range allow for new correlaries through technology. What once was mass-produced physically on assembly lines is now (theoretically) endlessly able to reproduce itself through digital copies. This includes pixel-based images as well as digital-physical production methods, such as 3D printing. In the mid-20th century, artists avoided the production of kitsch, but since artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst began to break the normative benchmark by intentionally producing “non art,” the range of acceptable mutation has grown almost to the point of meaninglessness.

3D-printed art relies almost entirely on the intent of the creator to define it as pure art and not kitsch. Most 3D-printed objects could be defined as kitsch in that they are representations of mass culture intended to be easily digestible and not require difficult thought to comprehend: to which thousands or perhaps millions of almost-identical 3D-printed Yoda busts can attribute. When peasants are able to download a digital model of artwork and reproduce it at home to near-exact tolerances, the distance between art and kitsch begins to narrow. That gap again narrows when considered against the previous need to be educated to understand or have access to pure art: 3D printing requres a degree of education and technical know-how previously thought unavailable to or lacking in presence among the kitsch-consuming peasants (as Clement Greenberg calls the public-at-large). Now, peasants can produce their own (low) culture.

3d printing now encompasses many of the struggles that existed with another formerly-new culture system: photography. Where is the value in a photograph if it can just be reprinted? The same argument applies to 3d printing. Through the years artist photographers have (mostly) sidestepped this issue through ideological cosensus and the forced scarcity of producing a limited number of physical prints. The art world considers a photograph art through comparison to various normative benchmarks, such as technical skill and content. However, the desire to succinctly categorize photography as art or not again breaks down to relativism when considered alongside non-art photographs that meet the same criteria. 3D-printed objects face similar challenges that artists are still trying to solve.

Due to its newness, artists are applying various techniques to force value onto their culture objects. Some follow suit with photographers and promise to make only a limited number of duplicates, or even unique objects. Others are considering the by-hand post-processing of 3d-printed objects to transform a replicable object into a unique one. Others still are using 3d-printed objects in mixed-media works as a single element among others. In this sense, the 3d-printed object piggybacks onto previously-accepted benchmarks for acceptable pure art.

So is 3d-printed culture art or kitsch? The answer denies binary simplification, and in my opinion relies on multiple factors much like other pure artforms that have low-art counterparts. However the prevailing benchmark seems to be consensus. Like the famous judicial argument defining pornography, “I know it when I see it.”