NEW + RECENT PUBLICATIONS
The Institute's second book is now available:
A Field Guide to Hyperbolic Space:
An Exploration of the Intersection of
Higher Geometry and Feminine Handicraft
by Margaret Wertheim
Based on the Institute's Inaugural Lecture:
The Figure That Stands Behind Figures
by Robert Kaplan
The IFF and cabinet
The institute has on ongoing relationship with Cabinet magazine
to publish in each quarterly issue an interview with one of our
Things That Think:
An Interview with Computer Collector Nicholas Gessler
Cabinet issue 21
Where the Wild Things Are:
An Interview with Ken Millett
Cabinet issue 20
Evolving Out of the Virtual Mud:
An Interview with Ed Burton
Cabinet issue 19
Crystal Clear: An Interview with
Developing the Logic Alphabet
Cabinet issue 18
The Mathematics of Paper Folding:
An Interview with Robert Lang
Cabinet issue 17
Crocheting the Hyperbolic Plane:
An Interview with David Henderson and Daina Taimina
Cabinet issue 16
Out of the Virtual Mud:
An Interview with Ed Burton
By Margaret Wertheim
This interview was first published in:
Cabinet, Issue 19, Spring 2005
|They crawl, they
hop, they slink and they undulate. Some roll, some fly, and others
unfold from a simple triangle. These “creatures” are the
products of an imaginative evolutionary experiment that now involves
more than 100,000 people worldwide. Each of these forms has been created
through a program called sodaconstructor that enables users to build
models which increasingly resemble living organisms. Over the past
five years, a global community has brought forth from this digital
mud a Cambrian explosion of species: walkers, stalkers, floaters and
flyers; things that tumble and skip; simulations of spiders, crabs,
and starfish; monopeds, bipeds, tripeds, and centipeds; a mobius strip
that turns itself inside out, and a hyperactive “butterfly”
enigmatically titled “Love.” This imaginary Galapagos
resides on a server in a warehouse in the Shoreditch area of London’s
East End, the grunge-chic office of Soda Creative, an innovative company
that specializes in producing software at the boundary of art, learning,
The architect of this virtual world is Ed Burton, an artist and computer
programmer who serves as Soda’s research and development director.
A graduate of the Center for Electronic Arts at Middlesex University,
Burton was inspired by computer pioneer Seymour Papert’s constructivist
notion of “creative play,” and by the engineering principles
of Control and Dynamic Systems. To his surprise, the software has
turned out to enable a far richer range of possibilities than he had
ever dreamed, as users have found ways to subvert and exploit features
of the code Burton had thought were inviolable. As in the natural
world, the taxonomy of soda-organisms has evolved in ways unimaginable
at the start, while Burton—an accidental god—has watched
on in wonder at the fecund spirit animating this miniature cosmos.
In July, he gave a talk at the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles.
Before that event, Institute director Margaret Wertheim interviewed
him by phone from London.
did you come to design sodaconstructor?
EB: I had just joined Soda Creative, who were doing a lot of software
in a language called Java that I’d never used before. So I
needed to learn this quickly and the way I like to learn things
is to play. Essentially I thought up sodaconstructor as a toy I
could build in Java and play with.
MW: What kind of a toy is it?
EB: It’s in the tradition of a construction toy. You create
a set of points and join them together by lines that effectively
act like springs and you can play around with all sorts of configurations
and see how these different models behave within the world. The
world itself has some very basic physics programmed into it, such
as a simple simulation of gravity. The thing I never anticipated
was the diversity of forms you could build with just this simple
set of rules.
MW: Can you describe how one of these models works?
EB: Sodaconstructor is a two-dimensional world populated by points
and lines. The points represent masses and the lines represent springs.
In the real world, springs usually have a fixed rest-length. The
novel element I introduced in the software is to have some of the
springs change their rest length over time. You can think of the
springs as a bit like muscles expanding and contracting. The change
is driven by a sine wave that is programmed into the world and acts
like a clock within this space. By connecting the point masses in
various configurations and letting the structure flex freely under
the influence of this wave, it was possible to make simple walking
creatures. I suppose that was the height of my ambition—to
make simple things that walked.
MW: So you were trying to make a virtual version of a mechanical
toy like Mechano or an Erector Set?
EB: Actually, it’s difficult to think of a physical toy that
is like this. Most mechanical vehicles tend to have wheels because
wheels are easy to build out of cogs. But typically in nature you
don’t get wheels. I was thinking of something more biological.
MW: How did other users get involved with the program?
EB: At Soda Creative we originally put it up online in 1997. But
it went into a very discreet corner of the site and was essentially
unnoticed for several years. In the summer of 2000, we gave the
site a polish and made it more prominent, then quite spontaneously
it started to attract an exponentially growing amount of interest.
It was largely a viral process. Suddenly it washed around the world
and we started to see very quickly all these different kinds of
creations coming in.
of these models seem organic; it’s almost as if they are alive.
They also seem to come in distinct types or “species.”
Could you describe some of these types?
EB: One type has come to be called amoebas. Essentially, an amoeba
is a ball that locomotes by squashing itself along a rotating axis.
I don’t know if there’s anything in nature it would
be like. That’s one of the few types that dates back to the
first batch of models I made. Since then, our users have come up
with many different kinds of amoebas and a lot of other types I
never imagined. There’s a whole style of models based on intermeshed
circles and mobius strips and there are many, many different types
of walking models, far more sophisticated than anything I envisaged.
For instance, bipeds. I suppose I had aspired to create bipeds,
but they always struck me as much too difficult.
MW: What’s so hard about bipedal motion?
EB: When bipeds walk, they are constantly out of balance, so to
achieve this style of motion requires dynamic balance with active
feedback to keep from falling over. In fact, I found a forum where
someone said that sodaconstructor would never create bipedal motion
because there wasn’t any active feedback from the environment.
But our users have managed to make very effective bipeds by exploiting
the fact that as a biped falls forward, it gets a slightly better
grip on the ground which enables its feet to accelerate slightly.
In effect, as it falls forward, it’s able to right itself
automatically. It’s interesting that users were able to make
a sort of patented method for dynamic balance.
MW: Do you think they were consciously thinking of this
as an engineering problem or just hit upon the method accidentally?
EB: It would have to be fairly conscious and a prolonged process
of trial and error. The way things get made in sodaconstructor,
it’s not that you just think, “Ah, I can make this”
and draw it on the screen and there it is. Things have to be built
slowly, through discovering the dynamics of individual experiments
and then building up slowly to create more sophisticated things.
Something like balanced bipeds requires lots of experimentation.
Another thing the users have been able to do that took a lot of
conscious effort is to develop models that fly. I really didn’t
expect that. They’ve made models that effectively defy the
gravity built into the system. This is an example of the community
going through a process of experimentation and creating something
and analyzing it and improving on it. They weren’t just revealing
something I’d hidden in the software; they were genuinely
discovering new potential I hadn’t even suspected.
MW: It sounds quite Darwinian.
EB: It is like evolution in many ways, but it’s missing some
of the mechanisms that would allow it to be really called evolution.
Most importantly, it lacks any competition for resources which evolution
typically has. Perhaps that’s one reason why the sorts of
things you see in the soda-zoo are somewhat like what you see in
the pre-Cambrian explosion in the earth’s fossil record. There’s
this almost crazy diversity because there’s so little competition
in the environment. Soda users think, “As long as it doesn’t
fall down, it’s OK.”
|MW: One of
the things that surprised you, I gather, is that some people turn
out to be star constructors. Creatively speaking, it hasn’t
been a level playing field.
EB: Yes. I had imagined everyone would be equally good and that’s
not the case. The first real breakthrough user who absolutely raised
the bar of what we could expect to achieve was someone who called
himself Kevino. A few months after the software became publicly known,
he sent us twenty or so models and all of them were a quantum leap
forward in sophistication. The most memorable was one called Unfold.
When you first saw it, it was just a triangle sitting on the bottom
of the screen, but the triangle started to expand and then it would
suddenly scrunch like a pop-up and unfold into a multi-faceted construction.
Then rather remarkably it could slowly contract in a very complex
geometric way back into the simple triangle. It was a completely different
genre and not anything to do with my pre-conceived idea of the program,
which was basically just to enable things to move back and forth across
the screen. Kevino had found a completely different style of movement
and it was executed with a great deal more skill than I’d imagined
One of my all-time favorites is another Kevino model called Shape-shifter.
Again, when you first see it, it appears to be just two triangles
joined together floating in space. Then those triangles unfold into
an array of triangles, and then that unfolds again, and each time
it unfolds it forms a different shape. That was extremely surprising
to me because all the movements of sodaconstructor are driven by one
sine wave, and so I always imagined the scope of the movement was
going to be repetitive on the same timeframe as the wave, but Kevino
was able to create something that had a larger scale of change and
appeared almost random, despite the fact that the software is completely
MW: It turns out that users have very different and often quite idiosyncratic
construction styles, which is also interesting given the mechanistic
nature of the system.
EB: Yes, the building blocks are so primitive that it’s surprising
people could put so much personal voice into it. Every so often, someone
comes along with a new break-through style that is picked up by others.
A memorable character in that respect was a user named Mono. All we
really know about him is that he lived in Japan. He is particularly
known for introducing a style of construction that has since been
called flex-chains or flex-loops, characterized by models made up
of long chains of closely spaced masses. He designed all these remarkable
models and then disappeared. Other users have since picked up on this
style, but it remains recognizably his.
at the evolution of the Soda universe and seeing how the models
have progressed from very simple to ever more complex, do you think
there is a lesson here for understanding the development of life
EB: It’s a difficult issue, because everything in the soda-zoo
has been designed by humans. In that respect it’s more like
creationism in that there are always conscious agents behind it.
That makes it difficult to take away lessons applicable to nature,
other than the idea that there is some driving force towards diversity
rather than pure homogenity—it’s like an ecosystem which
doesn’t work unless it has diversity. Novelty or originality
is one of the main drivers and that’s maybe a lesson both
in sodaconstructor and nature: diversity is good.
MW: I gather there have been discussions in your user forums about
the issue of creationism versus evolution.
EB: Yes, there are a number of people playing with the software
who are strongly advocating a creationist account of life. Maybe
rather naively, I imagined that doing a project like this would
somehow close down the debate. But people point to it as evidence
of the need for there to be a conscious agent behind creation, and
it was a surprise to me that the project was able to support such
a diverging debate.
|MW: In part
this is supposed to be an educational tool. What specifically do people
EB: Sodaconstructor has a good deal of Newtonian mechanics built into
it. But perhaps the more interesting thing that can be learned is
the more transferable skill of how it’s possible to create or
invent through a process of trial and error. In terms of pedagogy,
we’re building on the idea of learning through a constructivist
style, seeing knowledge as something that people have to actively
build in their own heads and that building artifacts can be a good
way of building knowledge.
In sodaconstructor, if the first thing you construct is a square and
you press “simulate” that’s probably going to fall
flat on the ground. But as long as you don’t find that too disheartening,
hopefully the next thing you’ll think of is drawing a cross
within that square to cross-brace it. Then if you press “simulate”
perhaps you’ll get a square that will bounce and spring back
upright and remain square. That’s perhaps what we’re most
interested in facilitating – getting the user to have a genuine
moment of discovery. That’s only possible if the software has
a sufficient degree of openness, which also has to be enough to allow
MW: You have created this world, but you’re not really the master
EB: These days I’m almost embarrassed to reveal the models I
made myself because they look distinctly juvenile compared to some
of the later models by others. I haven’t really tried to keep
up with the great model builders like Mono and Kevino. It was evident
I wasn’t going to be able to and it was actually more fulfilling
just to let them develop their own art and take it much further than
I was able to.
MW: Do you see this is a process that
will keep on going, with the models getting ever more complex? Or
will it plateau out?
EB: If you’d asked me that three years ago, I’d have said
yes, but it hasn’t. The users keep developing new things. They
are very good at exploiting any bugs in the system and making technologies
I hadn’t thought were possible. Our aspiration now is to try
to see if we can produce a system where the users can modify the software
itself. This is now a major project for sodaplay; to make the software
mutable and let the users start to tinker around with the instructions
and see where that takes them.
MW: It’s like
you’re allowing them to genetically engineer the code itself.
EB: Yes, it allows our users the agency to realize their best ideas.
We have quite an active forum in which they talk to each other and
often they’ll have ideas they can’t realize, like wouldn’t
it be interesting if the masses had magnetic polarity so we could
make models that attract and repel each other. At the moment when
someone has a great idea like that, people can talk about it, but
there isn’t any mechanism by which they can realize it and start
experimenting with it. That’s precisely what we’re trying
to do in the future.
MW: In some sense you are the
god of this universe. You have created a cosmos and the users are
angels bringing various orders and suborders of creatures into being.
It must be fascinating to watch what they do with it.
EB: One of the things I’m working hard to do is to dethrone
myself. I am a little uncomfortable with some of the almost reverence
that’s apparent in the forums. In a way, I become almost like
a mythical character—people whisper as to whether Ed exists.
I’m much more eager to open it up to be a more creative ecology
where anyone that has a good idea can realize it rather than me being
in a privileged position of the sole creator.
|All images courtesy
of Soda Creative
more information and models go to the sodaplay website.