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A Computer Made These Eerily Human Portraits From the Last Presidential Debate

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, October 16 2012

Among the millions of eyes expected to turn to tonight's presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be the cycloptic gaze of a single mechanical painter, a computer placed in front of a television set with the job of sketching what it sees like a courtroom artist. The tools of its trade are "particle brushes," programs repurposed from an earlier life helping to draw explosions in video games.

"It's not really a robot artist but this is basically a computer and it takes those brushes and tries to render the image," explained Don Relyea, the computer programmer, artist and designer whose automated creation is expected to watch the debates tonight.

During the last presidential debate, Relyea tasked a series of facial recognition and particle brush algorithms with watching the action, latching on whenever it recognized a face, and painting what it saw. The algorithms take the crispness of high-def television and break it down into something more random, something that looks eerily like the work of a human hand. It's called generative art: Done entirely on a computer, virtually, with an algorithm.

"The thing is, it doesn't render the image exactly," Relyea explained. "It's got lots of sort of looseness and errors built into the system ... I wrote the algorithm to kind of emulate the way I would do a really quick painting sketch, just colors on a small canvas or something with a brush that's kind of a little bigger than I would do if I was going to do something photorealistic."

The artist found this method of viewing the debates entirely by accident, he says. After plans to use this technology at an art festival did not pan out, he needed some material to "train" his facial recognition algorithms with, faces the program could see in order to be calibrated to better understand what a face looks like. The debate seemed as good a corpus as any.

"It takes about a minute to a minute and a half for it to draw the picture once it's found the face, and there's no intervention from me," he explained. "So the computer is watching a video projection or TV and it'll find a face. Sometimes there's a mistake, like it seems like it was finding Romney's ear quite a bit and I don't totally know why that was. You never know with these things, [with] technology ... that's kind of the fun of it."

Without the help of a human, Relyea's machine captured moments during the first Romney-Obama faceoff that seem surprisingly apt, he said.

"I didn't really know what to expect, but I was actually surprised that it did sort of capture the tone and the expressions of those guys much better than I thought it was," he said.

"You can see the tension on the faces," he explained. "That's actually what was exciting to me, was capturing the tension. You can see aggression, expressions of aggression and then expressions of almost recoil."

Relyea's computer will be watching the debate tonight, too, a tiny, artistic HAL-9000 with digital paintbrushes in hand. Unless there's a glitch, of course.

This is technology, after all. You never know what to expect.

All images: Don Relyea / Flickr

See all the generative art from the last presidential debate