Chucky Baby! A Pioneer Discovers VRML

The Flower Girl

All images courtesy Charles Csuri

Dateline: 9/23/98

These days it seems that everyone claims to be an expert in computer graphics AND computer art. There are loads of geeks who do produce interesting works but really they have art thrust upon them. The tough part about about being a cutting edge computer artist is that you often have to master the technology and soon you are a geek too! One of the pioneering computer artists who managed to not turn into a complete geek is Charles Csuri.

Chuck (as he is usually called) started doing computer art back around 1964 after he was an accomplished painter. Chuck founded the Computer Graphics Research Group which has evolved into the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts & Design (ACCAD) at The Ohio State University. During the late seventies and early eighties he was one half of one of the big computer graphics houses at the time, "Cranston-Csuri". Many of these old time graphics houses were overwhelmed by the reduced prices of computing and availability of high quality tools and closed up shop. (There is a good history of this time at Ohio State by Richard Parent.) Chuck however always had one toe (a big one) into real computer art. Trolling the Universe

Around 1976 I was in Rutgers college pursuing an art degree doing computer art and we had a small workshop/conference. When THE Charles Csuri agreed to come and talk it was a thrill turned out to be the highlight of the day. Chuck and the institution he was creating was a great inspiration to me, seeing a large program in Computer Art actually in existance not just a couple of people and one professor. He has a truly long pioneering and distinguished career. Recently a portrait of his careers has been highlighted on the SIGGRAPH web site, check it out for all the details.

The interesting aspect of Chuck's work is the use of computers for what they are inherently good at the interactivity and changeable nature of art on a computer. He calls these Real-Time Art Objects and he wrote about this in a paper published in the IEEE Proceedings Volume 62, No.4, April, 1974.


"Computer art graphics tends to be viewed as a static art form framed on the wall like traditional art. Traditional art criteria are imposed upon these works, with comparisons being made to the traditional art forms of drawing painting. How often one hears the comment. "Hey, that looks like art, " meaning it reminds one of his conception of traditional art. Computer art film is also a fixed object, but it does run through time, providing more dynamics than static graphics. The film as temporal event (event having duration) remains relatively constant through successive showings. It is also judge according to criteria applied to animated art film. Computer art film is closer to real-time art objects, but it is not interactive and one cannot expand or compress time or change the combination or the order of visual events.

Real-time computer art objects are an intellectual concept which can be visually experienced rather than a finalized material object. This kind of computer art exists for the time the participant and the computer with the CRT display are interacting as a process. The art object is not the computer or the display, but the activity of both interacting with the participant. In addition to its artistic parameters, the content of this art form is dependent upon the dynamics of a real-time process which give vitality and life to the visual display through animation and user interaction. The participant becomes acutely aware of three-dimensional space as images are changed dynamically and this perception represents an important parameter in the aesthetic experience. The artist created real-time art objects through time which deal with a fundamental concept about aesthetic variability including motion. Complexity is an essential ingredient of a sophisticated work of art. The aesthetic experience may be intensified if visual imagery can be presented in a form to engage the participant. Within a predetermined context the combinations of aesthetic relationships in real-time art systems are almost infinite. Instant visual feedback to examine alternatives is another important feature of such systems. Each participant is afforded the opportunity to experience the aesthetic object at a unique level depending upon their background and training.

Real-time computer art objects are a unique art form. The artist can create new objects and new worlds in real-time art systems or he can simulate objects from the familiar world of physical interactions. One can easily introduce area of perception which contradict or extend the way objects and their properties behave in the real world. The combination of the artist, computer hardware and software technology suggests a fundamental change in how the artist approaches creativity. The artist must now work with a concept of creativity which makes no distinction between the human and the computer. In a psychological sense the computer is implanted in the artist's brain and there is a harmonious relationship between the two. The science fiction notion of the human brain directly connected to the computer is a kind of metaphor to describe this concept of creativity.

Real-time computer art objects are designed so that the aesthetic experience is realized by the user through participation. The passive "viewer must become an active "participant" in the actual context provided by the system. A case can be made for the idea that art can alter perception, and that since perception is an active organizing process rather than a passive retention-of- image causation, only by actively participating with the art object can one perceive it - and thus, in perceiving it, change one's reality structure.

One should conceive of this art form as a kind of aesthetic process which includes basic images, the man-machine interface, and the strategies used by the artist to design the art system. The constraints the artist establishes with the software determine the kinds of options he can offer the participant and the options determine the way the participant is to interact with the art object.

-Charles Csuri


Fast forward to 1997 and enter Matt Lewis and VRML. Matt is on the staff at ACCAD and introduced Chuck in a serious way to VRML. Matt Lewis a staff member at ACCAD was getting into VRML and started to work with Chuck. Following is Matt's description of the events:

About a year ago, when I first started doing a lot of VRML work, Chuck started asking me about VRML's potential for implementing what he had referred to as "Real-time Art Objects" decades earlier, when he first started using the computer to make art. What he described sounded to me like his still images, but interactive: the objects would be moving and the user's interactions would cause them to change in interesting ways.

Originally, I constructed a VRML file for Chuck which primarily consisted of a Script node which used VrmlScript to generate an environment whose qualities were based on the values Chuck provided for a large set of variables. This first wrl simply created a randomly placed set of texture mapped boxes which spun around the environment at random. Using the parameter set I provided, Chuck could specify the number of boxes, the textures and colors to use, and other qualities such as the minimum and maximum size and velocity of the boxes, as well as the distance they could travel.

After experimenting with the possibilities for a day or two, Chuck would then ask, "How hard would it be to add sound?" or "Can we mix in some more complicated geometry?" Twenty versions of the code later, Chuck can now specify a mix of textured cubes and polygonal objects, control interactive transitions from one object or texture into another, and apply sequentially triggered and ambient sounds. -Matt

VRML is apparently just what Chucky ordered! A system for real time computer graphics, ubiquitous so the public can experience it. Now with the rise of the Web this type of art can be easily accessed. The interactive nature of Csuri's computer art can be enjoyed by us all, how fortunate that Csuri and VRML have each other.

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