Artaic Pieces Together a Robot Revolution in Mosaic-Making
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.
That 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 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.
Indeed, 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.”
But 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.”