Sunday 27 September 2009

Furaha in France

The world can be very interesting: while travelling home I stopped over at one of Brussels' railway stations and leafed through the magazines at the shop. I picked one magazine up because its cover showed odd animals. The journal is available in the Netherlands (where I live) as well, but chances are very high I would not have spotted it. it is a good thing I did, as the cover had some very odd animals on it. Well, a few blog entries later (here, here and here) I am in contact with the French couple designing these great animals: Marc Boulay and Sylvia Lorrain. The next stage was that they wanted to model a Furahan animal for fun (more on that below), and the very last phase is that next week I will be holding a talk on Furaha in the city of Ganges, at a 'rencontre littéraire'. There is a slight problem in that my French is mediocre at best, so I hope the images will do the talking...

Those of you who visited the sites of Marc Boulay and Sylvia Lorrain may have noted that the bulchouk, a decidedly Furahan avian, has flown onto their sites. Just for fun I will repeat some of the images here. The bulchouk itself is only visible on my site as an illustration on a book cover, so here is a bit more of it for you to see.

Click to enlarge © Gert van Dijk

The next stage was that Marc Boulay used ZBrush to model it in 3D, resulting in images like the following:
Click to enlarge © © Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain / Gert van Dijk

And then Sylvia took care of the textures and colouring and put the model against a good backdrop:
Click to enlarge
© © Marc Boulay / Sylvia Lorrain / Gert van Dijk

I am also now fooling around with Zbrush, which is fairly easy to get into. But if you want to see how it ought to be done, Marc has put a video on his site on which you can see how he modelled the bulchouk starting with a few simple spheres. Just go to his site, click 'FUN' on the menu at the top. Alternatively this will take you there directly (but you will miss the Triceratops!). Just click on the play button on the second window, and be prepared to be amazed.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Walking machines

The world of mechanics and robotics proved to contain some interesting analogues and even inspiration for speculative biological creations. That worked for flying animals, both of the heavier than air and of the lighter than air variety. No wonder that the thought came up that walking and other terrestrial modes of transportation could undergo the same treatment.

So, are there interesting mechanical contraptions out there that deserve to be 'biologified'? (I just invented that word but checked it on Google to be certain. Unfortunately, I was not the first: 'biologify' has 3 hits and its derived noun 'biologification' already has 91. Oh well...).

Well, the result of my search is a bit less dramatic than held for the flying animals, but there are some intriguing inventions out there. If you type in words such as 'walking machines' or 'robot insect' into Google, you will find many hits. Most concern toys with usually a high number of legs, of which only a few are lifted at a time. Most are not at all sophisticated in the sense of having integrated sensory and motor systems with balancing reflexes. No neural control at all, sadly. Instead there is just a motor and some mechanical bits and pieces that turn a rotary motion into steps. If you look at them, you realise how complicated and advanced biological walking really is. Still, that does not mean that people cannot have fun with these machines, and watching them is good fun as well. Just have a look at the following clunker:

I found it on YouTube, where it is labelled as a walking machine at "Burning Man '07" You can see that there are at least four legs on the ground at any time, so no delicate balancing tricks here. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of a suspension either, so it might pay to bring a soft cushion.

A more advanced machine is the so-called 'walking tractor'. From what I read, it was a design by a Finnish company meant for the logging industry, but the company apparently no longer exists. You can see they followed the double tripod design, in which three legs are always on the ground. This one apparently had advanced computerised controls. Here it comes:

A walker that really is beginning to look like an animal is the 'Big Dog' by Boston Dynamics. It is supposed to help soldiers cross difficult terrain. A very convincing demonstration occurs halfway in the video: someone kicks it, and it obviously has the reflexes to deal with that. If it steps in a hole, it can even deal with that without falling too. It is lengthy, but worthwhile:

I found it extremely impressive. Well, for a machine, that is. It is not impressive for an animal, which shows how much cybernetics still have to catch up...

None of these machines provide new inspiration in the sense of something that biology hasn't come up with yet. Surely there is something of interste for those who do speculative biology? Yes, there is: in the first place, machines such as the clunker shown above do hold some interest, as their legs work as 'pantographs': there is a system of bars linked together with movable joints, and no biological leg works like that. I will keep that subject for another entry, and that will also deal with Theo Jansens 'standbeesten'.

I will close with something for which I do not think there is a biological analogue, and I rather doubt the design idea lends itself will for biologification. It is a tripod walk. You will probably be disappointed know, seeing that tripod walkers go back as far as HG Wells in 'The war of the worlds'. (By the way, walking with odd numbers of legs might also merit a blog entry one day: there are pentapod walkers on Furaha, not to mention Epona!) But the design here has a twist. Almost literally, in fact. Its home page is here It is very creative and very crazy at the same time, so I cannot help but like it! Does anyone think it makes sense for an animal to move like this?

Sunday 6 September 2009

Rhinogradentia IV: final

Gerolf Steiner, the creator of the Rhinogradentia, died on August 14, at the age of 101. I found out by accident, as I wondered whether there was any news about him. Just a mention of his death, without any obituaries. Perhaps these will follow later, opr perhaps they are not on the internet. If none of this means anything perhaps you should replace 'Rhinogradentia' with 'snouters' and 'Gerolf Steiner' with 'Harald Stümpke'. I wrote about him and his creatures three times: first, second and third blog entries. Gerolf Steiner was one of the first, probably the very first, to publish a book on made-up animals that was well-based in biology. That is in act debatable, as I do not think anyone would really believe it likely that mammals with fully-functional legs would ever start walking on their noses. But his work on the Rhinogradentia is clear not meant to be taken that seriously, and doing so would ruin it - an attitude Steiner himself probably smiled at, given the way he portrays similar overly 'correct' attitudes in his book ''Stümpe's Rhinogradentia - Versuch einer Analyse'. That book, purportedly written by one Karl D.S. Geeste, but in reality by Steiner himself, contains ssome interesting insights in his life and times. In this last blog entry on the Rhinogradentia I decided not to show one of the Rhinogradentia, as they can, I think, all be found on the internet somewhere (the book is however still available and I recommend it). Instead, there are some comments on what we could not call 'speculative evolution', or 'speculative biology', or whatever name you prefer. First, Steiner writes that the habit of designing animals for fun is a much more common childish trait ('Kinderei') as is commonly admitted. He himself started doing so at a very early age. He writes that his first creatures were biologically implausible, and he provides an example of his work done in 1922, when he was about 14.
Click to enlarge Copyright Gutav Fischer Verlag Stuttgart
These animals are labelled 'elephant variations'. The comment for the animal at the bottom reads that it is a slimmed-down small elephant. Its no longer columnar legs show that Steiner has a good feeling for biomechanics. A few years later, at the end of the 1920s, he produced a group af animals entitled 'Balhörner'. Here they are (my scanner just gave up, so the quality is not too good -sorry-).
Click to enlarge Copyright Gutav Fischer Verlag Stuttgart
Steiner describes then as partly mammalian, partly reptilian, but does not consider them very good, as 'he was after all only a very young student'. Well, that particular young student lived to 101 years of age. I will close with a translated version of an interesting sentence, in the section where he describes that his own early inventions were still scientifically impossible (I followed the German structure of the sentence). "Later believable forms were produced; resembling fantasy animals in part, these have been published recently -a long time after the first publication of the Rhinogradentia- in England in 1981 (D.Dixon, After Man), creatures evolved from real lifeforms according to the rules of evolution." That is interesting: the writer of the first well-known book on speculative biology knew of the second such work. A pity he does not write more about it: did he see resemblances with his own work? We will probably never know.