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Media Lab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

The Department of Islamic Art's fifteen galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia are some of the most visually striking in the entire Museum. Located on the second floor of the North Wing, visitors are greeted by elaborate patterns carved and painted on many objects—from ceramic bowls to tapestries and arches. Tiles tessellate in repeating patterns across the walls, and in one room the ceiling is covered with intricately carved geometric patterns. With a collection of over twelve thousand objects, these galleries illustrate the fascinating diversity of the culture of Islam.

Islamic art is largely aniconic, meaning it avoids the depiction of figures. The opposition "stems from the belief that the creation of living forms is unique to God." [1] Consequently, Islamic art is dominated by intricate geometric patterns, arabesques (patterns based on foliage), and forms inspired by calligraphy.

While the creation of ancient Islamic patterns such as the "star" were trade secrets by artisans, Islamic art is considered one of the earliest instances of art to use algorithmic foundations. Algorithmic art is generated through a step-by-step sequence of formal equations, and the repetitive patterns found in Islamic art beautifully illustrate this concept. In order to create the stunning ornamentation, artisans needed to be skilled in analytical geometry. [2]

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Patterns found within the Met's Patti Cadby Birch Court

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Patterns found within the Met's Damascus Room

The focus of our project was inspired by the idea of algorithms in art. Since the Islamic Art galleries at the Met contain many single tiles and incomplete fragments, we began to think about how these tiles originally looked when they purposely covered an entire wall. More interestingly, what if a participatory element was introduced into the galleries, one that could allow visitors to generate new patterns? We decided that the best way to tackle these ideas was with augmented reality—a process that uses technology to add to the world we see around us. In our case we began to work on an iPad app; by using the iPad we could take advantage of the device's built-in camera and make use of a live feed of the original artworks.

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Rendering of an initial augmented reality idea

We began by creating very basic patterns in Processing, a programming language based in Java that was developed specifically with designers and artists in mind. Our first use of a Met object enhanced by augmented reality was this pair of Minbar doors.

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Pattern generated using the Processing algorithm (left), inspired by the pair of Minbar doors (right)

We then switched to OpenFrameworks and created a prototype that could be used on an iPad. OpenFrameworks is another open-source language for artists based in C++. Because OpenFrameworks works with xCode, it makes the process of exporting projects as an app for iOS much easier. As we would not be able to initially experiment with the gallery space itself, we meticulously laser-cut the carved star tile and the twelve-pointed star-shaped tile found in the department's collection. To cut these tiles we took hi-res images of the stars provided by the Met and traced over their patterns in Illustrator. The iPad would then use object recognition to recognize our tiles.

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Drawing the tiles in Illustrator

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Painting the tiles after they were cut, then piecing them back together

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Our wooden laser-cut tiles

We then created a graphical user interface (GUI) that would allow visitors to change the values in the algorithmic equations, thus creating new "tiles" of their own.

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Single-tile view

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Multiple-tile view

The background of the iPad application is currently black, rather than transparent, because continuously running the camera slows down the application. In the future we hope to create a truly augmented reality experience in the Museum using more advanced technology such as the Moverio glasses—a concept similar to Google Glass, but instead of having everything in your view off to the side, they are in front of your view and allow for true augmented reality. Our inspiration to use these came when Sean McCracken from Epson spent a couple days in the Media Lab to demo the glasses for us.

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

The Epson Moverio glasses

MediaLab Intern Spotlight: Exploring Algorithms in Islamic Art through Augmented Reality

Epson's Sean McCraken visits the Met to demonstrate Moverio glasses

We believe that incorporating a participatory element into the Museum's gallery spaces would enhance the museum experience for visitors in an very enriching way, creating new avenues for visitors of all ages that are both fun and educational. The true benefit of this project was having direct contact with the Met's extensive collection and receiving incredible inspiration from the Museum's staff. Finding a way to use modern technology to enhance classic artworks was an exciting challenge that we would both like to continue to explore in our future projects.


Related Links and Sources
[1] Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: "Figural Representation in Islamic Art"
[2] Now at the Met: "Building History: The Making of the Met's New Moroccan Court"

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