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Code-Driven Creatures Occupy This 'Algorithmic Menagerie'

Raven Kwok's projection mapped artwork is filled with morphing spheres, evolving creatures, and mind-bending virtual illusions.

Raven Kwok (aka Guo, Ruiwen) is a Chinese visual artist and creative programmer known for crafting imaginative generative, algorithmic, and projection mapping art. A photographer and self-taught animator, Kwok recently graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with an MFA in Electronic Arts. 

For his recent master thesis, Algorithmic Menagerie, Kwok used computer software to create what he calls “algorithmic creatures.” Based on self-organizing and interconnected cellular structures, these code-driven digital beings grow and move like sealife amidst an illuminated Tron-like grid.

Kwok's recent Portal 2.0, on the other hand, is the latest iteration of the ongoing Portal project, a projection mapping project that builds a virtual sensory experience on multiple real world surfaces. 

The Creators Project recently had a chance to talk with Kwok about both projects. We dove into how Portal has evolved from its first iteration (Portal 1.0), and the inspirations behind Kwok's mind-bending Algorithmic Menagerie project.

Portal 2.0 allows audience members to interact with “teleporting morphing spheres” to create its virtual or “illusionary” space. It was partly inspired by Messa di Voca, a piece of custom software created by Golan Levin, Zach Lieberman, Jaap Blonk, and Joan La Barbara that augmented speech, shouts, and songs produced by two virtuoso vocalists with real-time interactive visualizations.

“'Portal' not only indicates teleportation entrances and exits for the spheres within, but also the projection surface through which the real world space and virtual space are connected,” said Kwok. “Unlike the first iteration, Portal 2.0 allows more 'exchanging' process between spaces.'”

“The audience could make a noise in the real world and throw it as a spherical projectile into the virtual space,” he added. “In return, the spheres in the virtual space will sometimes dash forward and make the audience dodge.”

As Kwok noted, the work's illusion is not limited to the sense of vision. For this iteration of the project, he wanted the audience to be able to “feel” the work within a virtual space consisting of five teleportation walls. To pull this off, he used Processing to program the entire work, and a Vicon tracking system to pull position and orientation data from the viewer.

The Vicon tracking system is, as Kwok explained, a virtual camera that captures objects within its viewing area or volume, and then produces pictures as projections of objects onto a two-dimensional plane. He said that everything within the viewing volume (also known as its “frustum parameters”) is drawn on the screen.

“Its parameters can distort the imagery to fit the viewer's perspective,” he said. “The viewer will feel the environment as an extension of the real world space, not just an image from a projector.”

Algorithmic Menagerie is the fruit of Kwok's long-term research into artificial life and self-organization in computer-based generative art. In his mind, his digital creation is a virtual environment inhabited by “algorithmic creatures.”

The virtual creatures interactions mimic those those found in biological creatures. Kwok also said that the creatures reach equilibrium, or a state of balance, within their simulated ecosystem, with viewers encouraged to “intervene and interact” with these virtual life processes.

"My collaborator Kelly Michael Fox designed a specific sonification rule for each creature and implemented the entire audio system using SuperCollider,” Kwok said. “Two systems were communicating with each other in real-time through OSC protocol during the show. Also, two Kinects were hung from the ceiling to detect audience interference.”

As with Portal 2.0, Kwok used processing to program Algorithmic Menagerie's entire visual system. This includes body structures and the cell reproduction (aka, multiple proliferation stages) of all creatures involved. In other words, viewers see the behavior the algorithmic creatures exhibit within their own species and across others, as well as their interactions with the audience and in what he calls their “grid habitat.”

Kwok undertook the project partly because he has always been fascinated with the beauty of microscopic cellular structures. The idea was triggered years ago after seeing a high school biological textbook illustration depicting the organic formation of cells and its random variations. He wondered what this process would look like in animated form.

Along with artificial life influences ranging Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignoneau's A-Volve (1993) and Karl Sim's Galápagos (1997), Kwok said the mathematical concept of tessellation was a big inspiration. Tessellation is geometric tiling upon a flat surface. Within the surface's defined space, geometric shapes subdivide into smaller and smaller pieces, but in a finite way.

This intricacy can be seen in the various images and videos that Kwok produced for Algorithmic Menagerie. In them, creatures built of white lines take on beautifully complex and evolving shapes, all set amidst moving digital grids.

Kwok is keen on taking  Algorithmic Menagerie to various venues, but he's also already at work on a new demo for Emergent Reality Lab, where he's doing some research work on retro game experience of Konami’s Contra Stage 2 (originally designed for Nintendo).

“The cool part is that it will be implemented using POV (Perspective of Viewer) tracking from a first-person perspective just like Portal 2.0,” he said. “So that classic tunnel space in the game will be bridged to the real world space quite well.”

For more on Raven Kwok, visit his website here.

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