German Designer and Programmer Spoke About his “Planetary Alphabet” in Chelyabinsk

The South Ural region “Moose” and the geoglyphs of the Nazca desert seem to have gained a new colleague - giant letters created by buildings, rivers, and roads observed in satellite photos of the Earth using a computer program.

The idea of creating a planetary alphabet came to German digital designers trying to find surprising things in the ordinary, to find “writings of Earth” – in combined creations of man and nature. They believe that science and art are two things which can be combined, so they create unique design projects “on the border” of software design and computer art. The “art of algorithms” is, in some ways, similar to the abstractions of the “Malevich’s square” era of symbolism – it fascinates involuntarily and wakes the imagination. What is the point of searching for artists in the IT sphere, what “messages from above” do they translate to digital format? This was the topic of our discussion with famous German software designer Benedict Gross, professor of the University of Design Schwaebisch Gmuend.

Pools “in digital form”

— Why did you come to the South Ural region? What can you teach our designers?

— The main goal of my trip is to teach them the new features of computer design from around the world, show them the “harmony of algorithms” with which they can create both applied applications and artwork!

I came to Russia with support from Goethe-Institut to take part in the Typomania international festival of interactive design which is currently being held in Moscow. By invitation from Pavel Pisklakov, senior lecturer at SUSU and founder of the Dizain-sobitiya (Design-events) project, I also visited Chelyabinsk. In the OkNo gallery of modern art, I spoke about my research and held a master class for students. They created graphic art using algorithms, playing the role of designers and programmers. I shared my creative plans and my current projects with them.

— One of them is a project of cataloging the pools of Los Angeles…

— When I flew to Los Angeles, I was struck by how many pools there were. It turned out that no one has taken a note of all of the fountains and pools – that’s how many there are! And what if we use satellite pictures from Google Maps? I shared my idea with geographer Joy Lee, and we took this “hopeless work” on. We sent low-res images to Indian image tracers and, after receiving outlines of the pools (more than 60 thousand), we checked the results and further refined them. The blue roofs of buildings proved to be a point of confusion, as it was difficult to distinguish them from outdoor pools.

— And you were able to turn this work around after all?

— We used the Mechanical Turk services from Amazon – a crowdsourcing platform for work orders unable to be completed by computer. We sent photos to Microsoft Bing maps, and through the Amazon service, we got in touch with Los Angeles residents to ask them to verify our satellite information – what is a pool and what isn’t? It turns out there are 43134 pools! We combined this data with the city’s database and created a “biography” of these pools – where they are, what events are tied to them? This was 74 volumes of information!

The cartography office of Los Angeles was also interested in our work – after having verified the information on the pools, the office created a map. Our work also received a prize at a festival of media arts in Japan.

Geoglyph letters

— You also invented a “planetary alphabet”

— This megaproject was named “Aerial Bold: the planetary search for letterforms”. When we digitized the satellite information on pools, we noticed that many natural and man-made marks looked like the Latin alphabet. Why not bring them together in to a unified “alphabet of the Earth”? Using Kickstarter Internet service, we announced a fund raiser for this unique project, and people responded and supported it financially.

Master’s student Ankita Agrawal, who is studying artificial intelligence at the University of Applied Sciences Ravensburg-Weingarten wrote a program which can identify satellite letterforms. But the computer had to learn to identify more than 10 thousand images!

— How did you manage to gather this volume of data?

— Our Internet survey also helped us here – the company Mapbox offered satellite imaging, and we created a site on which it was possible to write in what letterform appeared. We published our site, and people identified 12 thousand planetary letterforms! After teaching the AI program created by Ankita Agrawal, it began to find letterforms itself in satellite images formed by roads, rivers, bridges… So in 2016, we created a text and alphabet of “planetary writing”. It is very popular, and not just because of this creative approach.

In my opinion, such projects are the culmination of partnership between designers and researchers, comparing things that are in plain sight but not visible to the “blindfolded eye”. The modern designer is simultaneously an artist with an unconventional, artistic way of thinking, and a programmer who creates projects in the Bermuda triangle of data where people, technologies, and the environment intersect.

— And will this project have a continuation?

— We are introducing children to art! In 2016, Penguins Books Publishing House released Joy and I’s book for children – ABC: The Alphabet from the Sky – an alphabet from satellite images with “planetary letterforms”.

Right now, I am working with students on an IT project, OpenMoji, with which people can express their emotions online. For example, if someone likes some information, they post smiley faces. However, Google has their versions, Apple has theirs… We are planning on creating a collection of such symbols which will be available to everyone. In February of this year, the second edition of our textbook on generative design was released. The main feature of generative design is that the designer is not drawing an image, but thinking up algorithms and writing a program which does this itself.

Model of existence

— Will soulless machines ever replace men? Artists?

— This is not a replacement for art created with computers, but a new level of it. Computers can be taught to draw, create poetry and music, but this will just be the result of a collection of data, a construction of an information sequence. Creativity and the ability to see beauty are uniquely human possibilities. Computers are simply tools for creativity which help us see beauty in the world around us!

— Are there any real applications for your designs?

— An example of this scenario is so-called speculative (predictive) design. This is a special kind of prediction of the future, without which it would be impossible to move forward today! As part of moovel lab, we developed a design project for cars of the future for Mercedes. For example, it will be possible to develop carsharing and car rental. We created an application which builds different modes of transport in to a unified logistical system. For example, to get to a particular place, passengers need to take the metro, then the bus, and then rent a car.

— SUSU graduate Aleksey Zakharov is the developer of the popular application for taxis based on artificial intelligence, Lyft…

— We launched a project called HubCab – an interactive visualization of data about New York taxis, developed at the CityLab laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I was able to work for a time. Any user can see the paths that taxi drivers have taken over the last year. Analysis of this data can help optimize the location of taxi parking in the city and show the locations of peak load.

Unmanned drones

— Can your project be used for unmanned transport?

— In 2015, we developed a scenario for the creation of unmanned taxi drones. And right now in Dubai, the popular holiday resort of the UAE, an unmanned flying taxi project using drones from the company Volocopter has been launched. In 2016, we published the moovel scenario in a Box, which is a kind of “mail delivery” of people in special cabins used as a replacement of airplanes! And this is not a joke: if the postal service delivers packages, why not trust them with “live cargo”, giving the passengers a comfortable ride? When we published this idea on Facebook, people supported the idea – more than 800 thousand likes! Their comments allow us to analyze peoples’ thoughts on this mode of transport.

— Can you make any big, global predictions?

— In 2014, with support from the Global DataBank Group, we created the project using data from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. This project involves analysis of the planet’s demographic situation with a full picture of the demographic composition by nationality, gender, and other markers. Based on demographic statistics, it models the socioeconomical development of various countries – growth or decline in incomes, fertility rates, and rates of death…

I want to add that our design projects and scenarios are predicting not the distant future, but the near future based on mathematical calculation and analysis. For example, teleportation, space flights with faster-than-light travel – those things are science fiction. But who knows what will happen tomorrow?

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