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Tech by VICE

This Robot Draws Pictures to the Beat of Your Heart

Introducing Heart Bot.

by DJ Pangburn
Aug 29 2014, 6:10pm

A screenshot of Heart Bot in action.

When we last heard from interactive artist Aramique, he and Jeff Crouse, Gary Gunn, and Bartek Drozdz were debuting the Conductar app at Moogfest; there they let me take a spin in the virtual/augmented reality app's metaversian world inside the Oculus Rift. 

Aramique, the interactive director at Tool, is now back with a new team, but this time he's debuting an installation called Heart Bot, which uses robotics and human heartbeats to make works of art. 

After SMS Audio (created by Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson) and Intel collaborated to launch a new headphone built around a heart rate monitor, Aramique was brought in to create an idea for an installation that would appear at The New Museum in New York City. With partners Crouse, Matt Mets, Ranjit Bhatnagor, Adam Thabo, and Nikolay Saveliev, Aramique proposed a drawing machine that would be controlled by the heart rate of each viewer. 

Heart Bot from Odd Division.

The idea was to create a collaborative piece of art that unfolded throughout the night by inviting all guests to spend thirty seconds with their finger touching a heart rate sensor, while the robotic machine would draw on the wall in real time. By the end of the night, as Aramique told me, they would collectively—humans and machine—create a piece of art together. 

"Heart Bot consists of a pulse sensor embedded into a small pedestal, a wall with two stepper motors mounted 12 feet high and 10 feet apart, and a long belt stretched between them," Aramique explained. "Attached to the belt in the middle is a rectangular frame fitted with two pen-wielding robotic arms that can draw through the window in the middle of the frame."

The user places a finger on the pulse sensor, then presses a button on the pedestal to begin the robotic process. The pulse information is fed to a small piece of software that sends a mixture of choreographed actions and pulse information to the motors and the robotic arms. By adding or taking up slack in the belt, the motors can move the robotic arms anywhere on the wall.

As the motors drag, Crouse explained, the robotic arms move around the wall in large, slower motions, then twitch up and down and left and right to make smaller, faster motions. It all results in large-scale generative wall drawings that Aramique said drew inspiration from Sol Lewitt's conceptual minimalism—simple but strikingly geometric and fluid lines—but in a collaborative way. 

Heart Bot drawing machine. Image: Aramique

"The process takes about thirty seconds per person, and after dozens of people have used it, the result is a collective representation of the emotional state of all of the contributors," said Heart Bot's technical director Crouse. Ultimately, 60 people participated by controlling the drawing machine with their heart rate, including 50 Cent and Carmelo Anthony. 

According to Bhatnagar, an engineer at Tool, the two big inspirations for Heart Bot were Jürg Lehni's HEKTOR, which wasn't the first suspended drawing, but a successful one that brought the idea into the public consciousness. The other is Johannes "joo" Heberlein's PLOTCLOCK, which Bhatnagar described as a "simple, clever, and nimble little drawing robot." Joo made all PLOTCLOCK's plans open-source, allowing Heart Bot creators to remix and mash up HEKTOR and PLOTCLOCK for their own drawing machine. 

"The challenge with the design was keeping it generative, controlled by the heart rate and creating some kind of order so it wouldn't become a mess of EKG lines," Aramique said. "We decided on a radial design inspired by the hands on a clock and started each person's contribution from the center of the circle working its way out. Each of the 60 people add their hear rate drawing to what corresponds with a second or minute on a clock dial." 

After its one-night only appearance at The New Museum, Heart Bot made a trip across the country to Intel's San Francisco's facilities. There are tentative plans for it to be shown again at the Computer Electronics Show, but details for that exhibition are still forthcoming. The final work created by Heart Bot will be donated to Feeding America®, a domestic hunger relief charity.

motherboard show
Heart Bot
drawing machine
generative art