Collidoscope.com’s Modern CA –Animation Wonderland!

There are Cellular Automata java applets, and then there are THESE Cellular Automata java applets!

I’m excited.  These things are pretty cool.  Some of you may have seen them before.  They’ve been online since 2002, or so.  But there’s certainly nothing passe about them.  It’s hard to see anyone passing or even matching the creativity of these applets.

They’re a little harder to link to and they’re animated, so here’s some examples to give you a taste of the feast that’s waiting for you over in Collidoscope.com’s Modern CA wonderland.  The real applets look much better than these smudgy videos, but this will give you a quick idea of how amazing they are.  They’re a bit like the old TV screen test patterns with an Art Deco style and neon coloring, but living, animated and in full color. They’re like kaleidoscoped circuit boards and things that just can’t be described.

Remember, the video quality isn’t near as good as what you’ll get from the real applets running in your web browser.  But to view these short videos you won’t need a java plugin or have to go there and search around.  Here’s four to get you started.  The first is about 15 Mb and is an embedded file I made from a video screen capture.   I think it’ll stream if you push the play button.  The next three I posted to YouTube and are more bandwidth friendly but the quality is proportionally lower as well.  I’d made a bunch more but the quality was so bad when I posted them to YouTube (they convert them to make them low bandwidth and fit in their video player) that they no longer were worth looking at; and when I embedded them directly into the blog page they wouldn’t play on Windows (although they played fine for me on Linux, which is ironic).

Collidoscope.com Modern CA Animation Theater:


The site has been around for some time but I only discovered it a week ago through a Google search on “cellular automata java applet”.  I hope the site  doesn’t disappear anytime soon because it’s got to be some of the finest generative art that I’ve ever seen.

The mandala versions are some of the best ones, they’re the ones that start off as diamonds and look kaliedoscoped.  In fact, I think they are kaliedoscoped.  Such a simple, old-fashioned trick and yet it works so well.  In fact, the kaliedoscope is probably the oldest example of algorithmic art.  It’s rather ironic to see it combined with something as space age-ish as a cellular automata applet.

I had quite a bit of trouble at first trying to capture the imagery.  I know (or that is, used to know until my recent crash course) very little about video “screenshots” and file formats.  Video is just plain complicated when compared to the relatively simple world of still images.  And then when you add in the “conversion” that YouTube does to shrink file sizes and make everything fit the aspect ratio of a movie, the confusion compounds.  It works okay for “photographic” video, but for crisp, clear, high-contrast digital art subjects, one needs to find custom solutions (and make custom mistakes).

The higher the vidoe quality, the higher the file size?  Not always.  I made a nice video capture with xvidcap using flash video (flv) that was much smaller than mpeg-2 and much clearer too.  Then I made one that looked perfect.  It ought to have looked perfect since it was a “lossless” codec.  20 seconds of a 400×400 px video was 152 MB!  But it sure looked good. Video is quite a lot more work to make and a great deal harder to present, bandwidth-wise.  Also, there doesn’t seem to be any video format equivalent to the png or gif still image formats which favor blocks of solid color instead of the smooth gradients that jpeg is better at compressing.  These CA applet images would be prime candidates for indexed gif or pngs if saved as still images (I saved one frame as a true color png and it was only 3.5k).  And since video is just a series of still images, I figured there would be a similar video codec.  Maybe there is?  Not all video is necessarily going to be photographic.  In particular, digitally created imagery is often simple blocks of color and would work much better with a codec designed for that sort of “gif or png-type” imagery.

One thing I learned right away: you can easily make a long, high quality video and still keep the file size down really low –if there’s nothing in it! Just as with still images, big blank areas make for small file sizes; file size is directly equivalent to the amount of details in the imagery.  But you can always bring the file size down if you’re willing to cut down on the quality and turn everything into melting plastic.

Back to Collidoscope.  I’m still getting oriented within the Cellular Automata (CA) world.  It’s nothing like the Fractal world; it’s much more scholarly and theoretical, which of course is what makes Collidoscope such an incredible find: I’ve never seen CA used in such a powerfully artistic way.  Most CA applets are usually illustrations or demonstrations in some scholarly discussion paper and don’t seem to have been made with any sort of artistic context in mind.  Maybe fractals were the same in the early days?  I doubt it because fractals, even the basic mandelbrot set stuff in black and white have an obvious aesthetic appeal.  CA is more text-bookish, in general.  But these applets aren’t the usual sort of CA stuff.  In fact, although I’m hardly an authority on these things, I’d say these are the most advanced CA that have been made.  And highly artistic too.

I’m still on the learning curve with these applets and have only just figured out what all the buttons do and what the parameters are, but I have learned that the author of all this amazing stuff is George Maydwell.  From George’s site I found some info:

Cellular automata have fascinated me ever since I read Martin Gardner’s column about Conway’s game of Life in Scientific American many moons ago. I have wasted lots of computer resources playing with cellular automata. One of my missions in life has become to inflict my unique vision of cellular automata upon the world.

I’m particularly interested in fast programmable color cellular automata. I’ve got a bunch of different web sites all devoted to cellular automata. I also have much free cellular automata software available for download. All of the software is fast and all of the cellular automata are color! As the world expert in hexagonal cellular automata rules I can show you literally dozens of hexagonal rules which are not boring. No one else in the world can do this.

By far my best site is Modern Cellular Automata – Live Color Cellular Automata which uses a small Java applet to power a plethora of live exhibitions of cellular automata. I’ve been told that this site is “amazing”. Certainly I’ve found the tools used to be the best cellular automata software I’ve ever experienced. Once you’ve played with Modern Cellular Automata software anything else (besides my other software) is just slow boring black and white cellular automata.

Conway’s Game Of Life is still one of the most popular and well known cellular automata. In spite of for the most part being bored with Game Of Life I decided I wanted to see what it looked like in color, so I set up the Color Game Of Life Visual Exhibition, using the Modern Cellular Automata Java applet. Even I have to admit that the pattern collection for Game Of Life has some very cool formations, particularly when viewed in color using a fast machine with a good Java implementation.

I even resort to stealth cellular automata. Some of my coolest cellular automata work isn’t even labelled as cellular automata! Collidoscope is a cellular automata screensaver for Windows which runs large hexagonal simulations at video refresh rates. Its way cool and far less boring than any Conway’s Game Of Life screen saver could ever be! Not only is Collidoscope a cellular automata screen saver its also a cellular automata wallpaper generator. Its so far ahead of its time that only I know just how advanced it really is.

My very first cellular automata web page is my SARCASim homepage, which has more fast free cellular automata software for Windows. Unlike current versions of Collidoscope, SARCASim is programmable. In reality I seem to be the only person ever able to program it, but at least I’ve provided a bunch of example data files which illustrate different rules. As far as I know SARCASim is the only general purpose cellular automata software powerful enough to simulate virtual ants. Papers and other stuff which doesn’t quite belong on the other sites ends up on this page.

from http://www.collidoscope.com/george/

If you check out his CA site, I would suggest (like a tour guide would) that you start with the section August Addition and in particular the page Brain 3.5 Rule Mix Lab (cool title) .

Check off the Pattern or Mandala boxes (or both) for what I think is the best viewing method and then just click on any of the variations listed.  I found lowering the rate to 30 or 15 made for better viewing because there’s just so much going on in the applets that 75 is too fast.  If you click on the applet once or twice it will restart with a new color palette.

After that check out the other August Additions pages and remember to check off the Pattern and Mandala boxes.  They look very good when checked off together.

There’s a site map page which really helps to find everything and get a grasp on what the whole site contains.  The author says a lot of complimentary things about his applets but I think he’s just being honest.  They really are remarkable and stand out from everything else that I’ve seen relating to CA.  They’re so simple (40k!) and yet the results are nothing less than hundreds of eye-popping digital animations.  That’s computational creativity for you.

5 thoughts on “Collidoscope.com’s Modern CA –Animation Wonderland!

  1. “Spot” has to toot his own horn about some of those other applications he wrote, because nobody else thought enough about them to actually use them. And that is based upon around 5,000 people listed in the “Fractal Census” database .

  2. So “Spot” is Draves? Why so much confusion about who what where or whatever. So Draves did Cellular Automata when no one else was thinking about it. This is interesting, can we continue..

  3. Yes, “Spot” and Scott Draves are one in the same (spot @ draves.org).

    No, he was not doing CA before others. Stanis?aw Ulam and John von Neumann were playing around with it at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1940s.

    It is just that the “Bomb” was a bomb, as for as people wanting to really use it. Which must say something about its true quality.

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