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Evolution on the Desktop

Ed Burton doesn’t like being compared to the Creator, but it’s hard not to see him in that light. Burton is the architect of an online world that is now home to 100,000 digital “organisms.” Located at www.sodaplay.com, Burton’s world gives users the power to build software models that in many ways resemble living creatures.

Consider the aptly named “Hairy Triangle.” Like all sodaplay models, it is constructed out of points and lines that are set in motion by Burton’s simple set of rules. In this case the design is a roughly triangular configuration surrounded by a tendriled fringe of “hairs” that stick out from the surface of the cell-like form. Each hair is tipped with a point, in effect a tiny foot, and the whole thing appears to be walking on these waving appendages. When it bumps into the side of its rectangular enclosure, the hairs feel their way over the surface and push the creature in the opposite direction.

Another model titled “Seeking Form” resembles a spiral ribbon that swims across the screen like a frenetic piece of kelp, while the rippling, pentagonal “Stella3-organic” calls to mind a starfish. Collectively, the sodaplay world has become a kind of imaginary Galápagos, an astoundingly fertile island of quirky and unexpected “life forms.”

Even Burton is surprised by the results. Sitting in his office in a vast and mostly empty warehouse in the Shoreditch area of London’s east side, he tells me that “The users have taken it so much further than I could have believed was possible.” Over the past three years, the sodaplay world has been going through a Cambrian explosion as people have learned to manipulate the software in ways undreamed of by its creator. During that time they have given birth to a giddy plethora of designs, ranging from the clearly representational — mimicry of spiders and crabs being the most common — to bizarrely surreal constructions such as a self-propelling Möbius strip and an elaborately linked pair of circles that turns itself inside out.

The sodaplay server resides in London, but the site has become a global game: 140,000 people have built their own models so far, and hundreds of thousands log on each month to check up on the “critters” evolving from this digital ooze. In the 18 months I have been watching, radical new constructions have been developed — new modes of motion, new styles of architecture, new methods of propulsion. About all this, Burton is supremely modest. “It’s the users who are driving it forward,” he says.

 

Tall and lanky, with a gentle brogue, Burton and the other sodaplay founders come out of the Center for Electronic Arts at Middlesex University in London, a place, he says, that “teaches artists how to write programs and programmers how to use software as an arts medium.” Burton himself was particularly inspired by computer pioneer Seymour Papert’s constructivist principle of “creative play.” Papert has long advocated using computers as a creative medium to facilitate education, yet to date most educative digital play has been pretty unengaging.

Sodaplay marks the realization of Papert’s vision, a simple program available on a laptop that offers users the opportunity to not only design endlessly fascinating structures, but to learn in the process about ideas that are now the subject of increasing scientific scrutiny. When developing his software, Burton was also prompted by the engineering principles of Control and Dynamic Systems.

CDS is a way of thinking originally developed to control complex manufacturing systems in which conditions — on a production line, say, or inside a machine — are constantly changing. Recently, a growing number of scientists including a group at Caltech have begun to argue that CDS principles are also applicable to many scientific problems — including understanding ecosystems, earthquakes, forest fires, and even the foundations of quantum mechanics. Sodaplay is a “CDS toy,” says Burton.

Once Burton had written his program, he built a dozen models and put the whole thing up on his Web site. For two years, not much happened, then suddenly in the summer of 2000 people began flocking. The spark of soda-life ignited, and a Darwinian creativity poured forth. What surprised Burton most was the rapid emergence of design stars. An egalitarian at heart, he had imagined a level playing field, yet it quickly became clear that certain designers were in a class of their own. “It is these stars who have really energized the community,” he says, inspiring everyone to greater heights. They go by monikers like Jeckyll, Kyrius, oooo and warptera.

Leading them all are two undisputed superstars, mono and Kevino, who are responsible for the models mentioned above. Since “sodaconstructors” don’t promote their offline selves, little is known about mono aside from the fact that he’s in Japan. Kevino is Kevin Okada, a 42-year-old purchasing manager for a San Fernando Valley garment company. Kevino’s models are the subject of an online retrospective on the Web site of the British government’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), which is a good place to begin exploring the soda-universe. Kevino’s ability to marry the engineering formalisms of complex structural linkage with a wildly inventive sensibility have led to such models as “Inspyre,” a delicate, tentacled form reminiscent of a sea creature (seen here in center of page); “Unfold,” an Erector Set–like model that unfurls from a triangle; and “BuggerFly,” a psychedelic, animated Rorschach blot (around the photo above).

From the moment he discovered the sodaplay site while randomly surfing one day, Okada says he was hooked. “My mind just latched onto it and wouldn’t let go. Immediately, all these models popped into my mind.” As a child, Okada’s favorite toys were Lego and Tinkertoy and other types of building games, but the trouble was that “there were always pieces you didn’t have or were missing.” Sodaplay, he says, “is the toy I’d always wanted. You have all the pieces and you can make them in any size you want.” Okada says he never imagined he had any special knack for engineering, though a basic knowledge of engineering principles is important when building the models. For those not weaned on constructor toys, he notes that the software itself is a brilliant teaching tool.

 

Users like Kevino have found ways to circumvent what Burton had thought were inviolable rules, pushing the boundaries of what can be done within the system. One of Kevino’s innovations was a type of construction that has come to be called “zip springs,” which enables points to get as close as possible to one another. Here, says Burton, “The users have discovered a new application of an underlying principle.”

The sodaplay tree of life has already split into distinct taxonomic groups. Among the various “species” are the “dainty walkers,” spiderlike models that tiptoe along on many legs; and “amoebas,” which Burton describes as “balls that squash themselves and roll along.” Mono is a master of the amoeba form and also of an enigmatic class of models constructed around circles, ellipses and Möbius strips.

Once a new form comes into being, variations quickly appear as other users take up the design and riff on its possibilities. Over the space of a few months, “sodaplayers” can literally watch evolution in action, with each new round of models building on the innovations of previous designs.

One of Burton’s agendas was, in fact, “to make the process of artificial evolution transparent.” On sodaplay chat sites over the past year, a debate has been raging about Creationism and whether the evolution of these digital organisms is relevant to the biological world. It turns out that some sodaconstructors are creationists, and they reject any parallel between this imaginary universe and the physical realm. But for most of us, sodaplay seems a brilliant embodiment of the Darwinian theme: From the subtle pressure of contingent forces acting upon simple forms, complex structures seem almost destined to evolve.

 

To see Ed Burton’s online world, go to www.sodaplay.com.

For a retrospective of Kevino’s models, go to www.nesta.org.uk/inspireme/soda/sodaplay.htm.

For a list of models by “star” constructors, including mono, go to www.sodaplaycentral.com/models.php.


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