The art world is fascinated with data. Information has been turned into everything from flowing fabric sculptures to intimate street-view soundscapes. And this week The New Museum in New York City opened Heart Bot, a robot that produces drawings based on the collective pulse rates of the people in the room.
Heart Bot's drawing mechanism is made up of two stepper motors spaced 12 feet apart and connected by a long belt. That's connected to a pair of robotic arms holding the pens that do the actual drawing. As each user steps up to the podium and places their finger on the pulse sensor, the arms move across the wall in strokes dictated by each person's heartbeat. The pulse data is sent from the sensor to a piece of software that then relays that information—combined with choreographed actions—to the motors and arms. The end result, while not a mind-blowing composition, is nonetheless notable for being drawn by the collective pulses of a room full of people.
The project, which was designed by interactive agency Tool of North America in collaboration with the branding firm Sid Lee NYC, has a built-in novelty. "The idea was to create a collaborative piece of art throughout the night by inviting all of the guests to spend 30 seconds with their finger on a heart rate sensor while the machine would draw on the wall in real time," says Tool of North America interactive director Aramique. "By the end of the night they would create a piece of art together."
But like many wired art projects, the system is often more creative than whatever traditional form of art it produces. And its functionality challenges what art is at its core: a creative expressive derived from the human mind.
Tool of North America has become known for its creative forays into technology's bleeding edge. In April, the agency unveiled a similarly biometrically fueled art project at the Moogfest music and technology festival called Conductar, a brainwave-controlled music and virtually reality experience. More recently, the production company lent some technical talent to the collaboration between James Murphy and the U.S. Open that let the electronic music producer turn data from tennis matches into songs.
This project is influenced by HEKTOR, the motor-controlled spray-painting machine developed by engineer Uli Franke for Jürg Lehni in the early 2000s. And it's reminiscent of the "Senseless Drawing Bot" by Japanese designers So Kanno and Takahiro Yamaguchi that uses a double pendulum mounted on a modified electric skateboard to create an ingenious spray-painting machine. And Harvey Moon's Drawing Machine used a similar mechanism and a little help from Processing to turn photographs into intricate wall art. You can even get a tiny, Arduino-powered drawing robot of your own (presuming the Piccolo ever starts shipping) for less than $70.
Tool takes some inspiration from these concepts and expands on them to work with biometric signals rather than have the machine take its commands directly from a computer.
"After dozens of people have used it, the result is a collective representation of the emotional state of all of the contributors," says Tool technical director Jeff Crouse.
That may be true, but the Heart Bot's drawings resemble EKG readings more than fine art. And as a result the creation is less inspiring than the idea behind it.