Artaic Pieces Together a Robot Revolution in Mosaic-Making

4/23/08Follow @wroush

Mosaic has been a popular form of public art since Roman times, but the techniques behind it haven’t advanced much over the millennia. Assembling the glass, stone, or marble pieces of a mosaic, called tesserae, is still a manual process that takes even experienced craftspeople two to three hours per square foot. (If the artist is cutting her own tesserae, add another three to four hours to that.) At such painstaking rates, it’s a form of decoration few but the rich can afford.

But there’s an angel-funded startup in Boston that hopes to gradually change that, using a combination of custom graphics software, robotics, and classic assembly-line techniques. Ted Acworth, CEO of Artaic, says his company’s system will churn out mosaics at a rate of one square foot every six minutes, at a cost of around $150 per square foot—which is well below the $250 or more per square foot you’d have to shell out for a traditional mosaic.

Artaic Restaurant Installation — Conceptual IllustrationThat cost could drop over time as the robots get faster at placing tesserae. And because the process is software-driven, Artaic can make a mosaic from almost any image, such as a photograph, a painting, or even a historical work like the famous, 1,700-year-old Bikini Girls at Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale (the subject one client has hired Artaic to reproduce in his bathroom).

“If you e-mail us a JPEG of your dog, we can make a mosaic out of it,” says Acworth. I’m crazy about my dog, so if I had the spare change I might actually consider it. But Artaic’s very first commission will depict a slightly more traditional subject: a sailboat. Based on a watercolor painting, the three-story-high, 500-square-foot mosaic will become the lobby centerpiece of a New York office building that was once a factory for fiberglass yachts. Acworth says production and installation could begin as early as July, depending on whether Artaic’s first robot is assembled and working by then.

Acworth says he first became interested in mosaic while traveling in Europe, and that he has been a student of the medium for a decade. It was when he considered installing mosaics in the bathrooms, kitchen, and patio of the new home he was building a few years ago that he was surprised to find out how complicated and expensive it could be. With a mechanical engineering PhD from Stanford and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School, he started thinking about creating a company to apply automation to the process.

Artaic Wall — Conceptual IllustrationArtaic wasn’t his first company launch. While at MIT, Acworth was part of a team that developed a 3-D imaging technology that won seed funding from the then-new Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation and was a runner-up in MIT’s 2003 $50K Entrepreneurship Competition. The startup that he helped to create around the system—Brontes Technologies—won $10 million in venture funding from Bain Capital Group, Charles River Ventures, and IDG Ventures (now Flybridge Capital Partners) in 2004, and went on to be acquired by 3M two years later for $95 million.

With part of his proceeds from the sale, Acworth became one of his own angel investors at Artaic. The technology it’s developing has two main components: computer-aided design software that helps artists translate images into specifications for the placement of tesserae, and a high-speed robotic arm that takes over the manual labor of picking and placing tiles. The robot is designed to grab tiles as small as 3/8 of an inch across from up to 200 buffers, each one loaded with tiles of a different color, and lay them at the right spots at the rate of about two tiles per second. The one-square-foot tiles created by the robot are assembled on-site into a finished mosaic.

“Pick and place” robot arms are fairly common in industries such as food handling and packaging. But it’s a 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.”

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

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  • http://www.tesseraemosaicstudio.com Shug Jones

    On the contrary, I know MANY traditional mosaic artists and NONE of them would be interested in “farming out the manual-labor”. For us it is all about the actual cutting and placing of the tesserae. My business partner and I do large scale mosaics and at times we hire a few other trained mosaicists to help with production, but we are as involved in the creation of the mosaic as the helpers. What you have described here is not art, it is pixelated pictures using tiles.
    Sure, some of the large tile companies that also produce grid type mosaics might be interested in a robot taking over the work for them, but I don’t consider their work art either.
    Until a robot can think and consider each shape, color and nuance of andamento in a mosaic, it will never be as beautiful, creative, or satisfying as a “true” mosaic created by a thinking artist cutting, interpreting and placing each tessera.

  • http://www.simplemosaics.com Laura K. Aiken

    I read this article earlier but didn’t get to finish. I now have read the article again in full. I too agree with Shug. We mosaic artists thrive on the placing, cutting, thinking, and andamento in a mosaic. It is an artform and we love to create —–mosaic!

  • Terry Nicholls

    Seraut spent two years on his masterpiece and we are thankful for that. Good art is worth the time and the money and the vision within the artists mind. Automated tripe is not. If we are going to judge art by how fast and cheap it can be done we have lost the point.
    I enjoy laying tesserae and would not dream of farming it out.

  • http://www.mosaicmakers.co.uk Gary Drostle

    Perhaps we should get some cheap posters to paste over the Sisteen Chapel ceiling as well. Fortunately few who give mosaic art more than a cursory glance will be fooled by this ‘colouring-in graph paper’ approach. Mosaic Art is so much more than squares of colour tile, it’s about cutting, flow, texture, the expression of the human hand and that investment in time and thought.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Shug, @Laura, @Terry, @Gary:
    I thought experienced mosaicists might react as you have to Artaic’s idea, which is why I asked Acworth that question at the end, about whether he was concerned that his technology might cheapen the form. His answer (that his technology just automates the non-creative, manual part of the process) did seem to me to miss the point a bit, since I’m sure—as Shug says—that there is quite a bit of art in the placement of tesserae. But personally, I don’t think Artaic’s system poses a direct challenge to traditional mosaic making, or that it should provoke the kind of angry dismissal that Terry and Gary’s answers contain. I see it as a new form of technology-mediated art, sort of like Jhane Barnes’ amazing computer-mediated designs for textiles and men’s clothing.

  • http://www.3scoreinc.com Paul Hodge

    Hello,
    we have had high speed 3rd generation production automated mosaic robotic systems in operation for 5 years, we produce large scale architectural photo mosaics for public works projects, etc.. i.e. the ceiling for the national dday memorial in Bedford Virginia. We did this 100K project in 3 days using our robotics. My point, there is definitely a place for this technology, we are a very profitable business with 30 employees, our wholesale price is $25 per square foot, not $150, and produce a square foot every 65 seconds. I hope everyone has done their homework. http://www.3scoreinc.com

  • http://www.americanmastersofstone.com/Biographies/Rose%20Scott.htm Scott Rose

    This is really an interesting article. I have been a mosaic Artist for 50 years now, handed down to me as a family heritage you might say. I would really like to see your automatic machine recreate one of my mosaic portraits. It would be interesting to see how close it could come to the original artwork. I don’t think it can be done myself, I don’t even think I could recreate one of my own works exactly. Each precious stone I use has hits own thumbprint in nature and no two are alike. It really would be interesting to see you try to copy one of my works just to see if you can do it.
    My art work takes weeks to complete and everything is hand done from the drawing to the inlaying of semiprecious gemstones and Devonian age marble which I hand collected myself from the earth. You have a great invention if you can really do what you are saying you can do with your machine and a computer. I am sure our ancient brothers and sisters of the mosaic art world would be truly amazed to see you complete a perfect original mosaic artwork in such a small amount of time.
    Sincerely,
    Scott Rose
    Legends in Stone
    Mosaic Art Gallery
    ps
    Sorry there is no spell check to correct this message.

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