The alphabet synthesis machine

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Levin, G., Feinberg, J., Curtis, C.: The alphabet synthesis machine (2006).



The Alphabet Synthesis Machine is an interactive online artwork which allows one to create and evolve the possible writing systems of one’s own imaginary civilizations. The abstract alphabets produced by the Machine can be downloaded as PC-format TrueType fonts, and are entered into a comprehensive archive of user creations. The products of the Machine probe the liminal territories between familiarity and chaos, language and gesture.

Extended Abstract

TECHNICAL REALIZATION The Alphabet Synthesis Machine is comprised of two software systems: an inter- active client-side applet, which allows users to create and evolve their abstract letterforms, and a server-side archiving system which stores the user creations as downloadable TrueType fonts. At the heart of the interactive applet is a genetic algorithm. This algorithm attempts to evolve a population of candidate glyphs according to a set of fitness metrics established by the user. Some of these fitness metrics are obtained from an initial ‘seed glyph’ provided by the user, while others are controlled by the user in real-time, through a set of parametric sliders and other interface controls. The glyphs are evolved both as individuals (i.e. each in relation to an ideal metric, in order to enhance their individual ‘letterness’), and also as a species (i.e. each in contradistinction to each other, in order to enhance the variety of the alphabet as a whole). The glyphs themselves are the virtual trajectories of synthetic hand movements, produced by a 3-dimensional physics simulation of a hand-pen-paper system. This model incorporates such forces as the response of hand muscles to neural firing rates; the inertia and intrisic viscosity of the arm; gravity; and the friction of the stylus against the virtual writing surface. When the user is finished evolving their abstract alphabet, its glyphs are converted into quadratic Bezier outlines and then transmitted to the server, which stores them as a PC-formatted TrueType font. This font can be downloaded at the time of its creation, or at any future time from an online archives of user creations. Visitors have created more than 5000 alphabets since the project’s launch (1 October 2001). While this version of the machine (1.0) deals strictly with single-stroked cursive alphabetic forms, future versions of the ASM will explore the possibilities of cut- and printed-letterform simulation.


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