Artaic Pieces Together a Robot Revolution in Mosaic-Making

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good bet that no one has ever put them to work creating art. “I wouldn’t call what we’re doing rocket science, but neither is it something that just anyone could do in their garage,” says Acworth.

One of Artaic’s key technologies is a set of algorithms–part of a proprietary plug-in for Adobe’s Photoshop software—that transform high-resolution digital image files into designs that will actually look good as low-res mosaics, which must be assembled from a limited palette of tesserae.

“You can do that in a quick and dirty way, but if you look at the resulting image, it will have all sorts of problems, such as strata and contours,” Acworth explains. (If you remember how blotchy and pixelated most computer graphics looked during the early days of home computers, when many displays were limited to 256 colors, you’ll understand the problem.) “To make it look artistic and pleasing to the human eye, we’re pulling math out of genres of art such as pointillism,” says Acworth.

Artaic Ceiling Installation — Conceptual IllustrationIndeed, Georges Seurat—whose theory of “chromoluminarism” posited that painters could consistently evoke emotions like gaiety, calm, and sadness using only lines and dots of varying color and intensity—would probably have felt right at home with Artaic’s system. But while Seurat spent two years on his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, Artaic’s system could make it into a mosaic in about seven hours.

As equipment for the robot assembly system arrives, the four-person company will quickly outgrow its current Back Bay quarters, according to Acworth. So he’s searching for new digs, preferably among the galleries, artists’ studios, and art supply houses in Boston’s Fort Point Channel area. “Unless we are wildly successful from the start, we are going to have a lot of spare capacity on this machine, and I want to open this up and allow artists to come play with it,” says Acworth. “I think we’ll learn a lot from them.”

The company has partnered with automation-integration firm Elm Electrical of Westfield, MA, on the design of the robot, but will start hiring more people of its own soon, including hardware and software engineers who can help the company scale up beyond its first few commissions. Acworth says he’s convinced Boston is one of the best places to be growing a company that combines art and automation. “There’s a strong robotics industry here, and in the heart of Boston we’ll be close to our market and we’ll have the ability to leverage skilled artists and knowledge workers. For me personally, this is the perfect blend between geeky technology stuff and art and creativity.”

Artaic Lobby Installation - Conceptual IllustrationBut applying technology to arts and crafts doesn’t automatically elevate them. Few would argue, for example, that our living rooms are more elegant in the age of mass-manufactured furniture. I asked Acworth whether he ever worries that in the process of industrializing mosaic-making, Artaic’s system will cheapen the form—and perhaps put its last surviving practitioners out of work.

On the contrary, he answered. Very few leading mosaic artists actually do the tesserae-placing themselves anyway, he said—they farm it out to low-cost laborers, and would jump at the chance to automate that part of the process. “I’ve described this to a number of mosaic artists,” Acworth says. “They love the idea of not having to spend 90 percent of their effort hiring and managing the low-cost, unskilled laborers to fabricate their projects. What we offer is to let the artist focus on the creative side and give them better tools to take care of the labor side.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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