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pu gong ying tu

WHAT IT DOES

Pu Gong Ying Tu ("Dandelion Painting" in Chinese) is a virtual dandelion field meant to provide a playful experience.  In nature with real dandelions, It's fun to blow on them and make a wish. What’s fun about this piece is that you can do that over and over because it's digital, so speeds up growing new flowers. But it's also a painting that you can interact with as if you were interacting with the real thing. It brings nature into the digital world, in a way that I hope is magical. We all know paintings as these beautiful but static artifacts. To be able to interact with a painting and have it respond to you in a way that's natural creates surprise, making it come to life.

INTERACTIVE LIGHT PAINTING

WHY I MADE IT

Pu Gong Ying Tu was inspired by a workshop on paper circuits I taught at MIT during winter break. Two of the students, Jessie Thompson and Zach Berta were scientists who loved gardening.  Jessie especially loved plants and all the projects that she created had flower and plant themes. 


A few sessions into the workshop, we were working on sensors and microcontrollers. I showed them how to use a microphone to detect sound, which can also be used to detect wind. If you blow on a microphone, it also generates a signal.  Jessie saw this and immediately wondered what plant responds to sound or wind. Well, a dandelion. How beautiful is that? She made a single flower poster of a dandelion that you can blow on. It's a white puff and when you blow on it, the seeds “blow away.” Jessie and Zach worked on it together and they titled it "When Is a Flower Not a Weed?


They allowed me to take this concept and turn it into a full-scale painting of a field instead of just the one flower. That's why it's really fun to get share new tools and mediums with a bunch of people — because then they come up with brilliant ideas like this one.


In the new painting, as you blow on one flower, its seeds spread and causes new flowers to grow, so it's a continuing system. That's how you get new dandelions to blow on. The flowers begin as yellow and turn into white, interactive puffs.


Part of my personal goal is to show that circuitry can be really beautiful, too.  So I used the wire and copper tape as lines to draw with as well as the connections that make the circuit work.


All around the edges of the painting and the backing are magnets, so they just self align and stick together, allowing me to peel back the painting and show the circuitry.

After playing around with the painting, people also seemed to really enjoy looking at the circuitry underneath. They would have reactions like, "Whoa, this is really interesting to see, too. Wow, I've never seen a circuit like that."


Right now, it's hanging up at the MIT Media Lab. It's three years old now, so it's gotten a lot of love and could use some upkeep, but that's where it's been so far.

WHO I WORKED WITH

While I was inspired by Jessie and Zach, I also had a lot of help on this painting. I really wanted to learn Chinese painting but I didn't know how. A really good friend, Brian Chan, who makes beautiful stuff — like laser-cut ukuleles, crazy origami, swords, instruments, and articulated 3D-printed crabs, also happens to know Chinese painting. He also runs the hobby shop here at MIT, so he helps other people build their creations, too. Brian knows the classic painting strokes as well as how to treat the paper, how to glue various papers together to make them stronger, and a lot of things like that. He was super patient, helpful and I learned a lot. This painting wouldn't have happened without his guidance. 


John Clifford is a mutual friend who is also very talented with a brush and he did the Chinese calligraphy, which basically says, "Dandelion Painting." That was how the painting happened. Then, for the programming and the other bit, that was my adventure.

HOW I MADE IT

There are some really interesting tricks that I discovered. I used little yellow post-it notes to tell me where to put the LEDs as they disperse. First there are the seeds before they disperse, and then there's the first level of light. It was fun to experiment.


I used alligator clips and these very angular things to prototype the whole circuit of the flower, to figure out what my code would be and how to connect things before I moved on to making them look like flowers.


First I had to know what the circuit needed to be before I could start to draw the lines and so that was a whole other kind of design process. It all had to come together seamlessly.

WHAT I LEARNED

I learned a lot about the materials and how they work, what connections work, what connections don't work. Basically, I didn't plan out the circuit. Instead, I made one flower at a time and just overlapped whenever I needed to. It was a narrative process. I learned a lot about keeping things flexible. I also learned a lot about how to paint or even make this happen with all the materials from John and Brian. It was just so cool to get to work with them and realize how complicated the painting is. I'm so blessed to get to work with folks who know what they're doing.


Mounting the piece was one thing that Brian was really patient about. After you paint, the paint wrinkles the paper and so you're actually supposed to re-wet the whole thing, add a tiny bit of methyl cellulose glue, and then put it on a flat glass surface. I just stuck the painting to a window in the hallway. That's how you flatten the whole painting. There were so many things like that, but then in the end it makes this beautiful thing.


It was just so interesting to see so many different processes coming together. I’d be programming with my computer, then laser cutting the signature stamp, then watching my friend do amazing calligraphy in Chinese ink paints, then pasting the painting to a window, then soldering wires.

WHAT’S NEXT

I'm actually experimenting with creating a couple more interactive paintings, trying out some new techniques.  I've recently worked with Nicole Teeny, a filmmaker who is interested in new expressive technologies, and Rebecca Kleinberger, a fellow PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, to create a new version of the Dandelion Painting with circuit stickers.  In this painting we've explored creating different styles and sizes of dandelions.  For the circuitry, I've also followed the form of the flowers more closely.  My hope is that as electronic painting spreads, eventually others will create their own versions of dandelion paintings or other interactive paintings!