As befits a city undergoing a cultural renaissance, Birmingham has a vibrant arts scene, including an abundance of murals livening up local businesses such as Trim Tab Brewing Co. and John’s City Diner, not to mention those sprucing up run-down or nondescript areas. If a group of UAB engineering students manage to secure funding for their senior project, a fascinating synthetic tool could be joining the city’s creative energy.
Their project is called R2 PaintBot, an automated mural painting system inspired by the Magic City Mural Collective’s 99 Murals in 99 Neighborhoods project. Although PaintBot has a long way to go before its completion, the current plans would have the machine using RC servomotors and four airbrushes — with cyan, magenta, yellow and black paint — to paint a dot matrix of an image on a brick wall.
“Right now, physically, it’s able to do almost nothing because we’ve been raising money to try and buy parts,” said Marc Parker, who is leading the project alongside fellow students Jason Pate, Jazman Brock, Veronica Smith and Julia Woods, with Professor Doug Ross serving as faculty mentor. “All we can do right now, basically, is operate one motor.”
Parker was inspired to begin the project after seeing the mural collective’s own crowdfunding effort for the mural at Trim Tab, which he volunteered to help out painting. “I helped paint the mural that’s on top of Trim Tab now,” he said, “and I learned how difficult and tedious it is just to get it level. Most of the creativity involved in it is in designing, in the ideation stage, and painting the fine detail of those.”
To help simplify and streamline the process — as well as to contribute to his own creative output without switching careers to become a sculptor or architect — Parker came up with the PaintBot idea, which the mural collective has given its support to. After initially suggesting some Jackson Pollock-inspired designs for the robot to paint, the collective might now collaborate with UAB by using PaintBot to outline their murals.
“One thing I feel like was a selling point for everybody is that it would create a cool effect where you see it from far-off, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a really detailed image,’ and when you’re close-up it just looks like dots,” Parker said.
The mural collective’s support may also derive from the fact that PaintBot isn’t going to be putting any working artists out of business, according to Parker. “If you wanted to have something with smooth lines, like really large letters, we’ve already tested the simulation and it looks terrible,” he said with a laugh. “You would never want ‘It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham’ or ‘You Are Beautiful’ painted by the system that we’re designing.”
Even so, PaintBot’s dot matrix-based system — known as raster graphics — opens up interesting functional and aesthetic possibilities, from its aforementioned usefulness in organizing large-scale painting to its potential to recreate works of artists like Georges Seurat, who led the Pointillist movement, or of Roy Lichtenstein, whose pop art made frequent use of Ben-Day dots.
While it may seem unusual for a group of engineers to try their hands at an artistic endeavor, Parker believes that the PaintBot project fits an expanding definition of the problems that engineering can address.
“There is an inherent economic aspect to engineering,” Parker said, “that engineering is the application of math and science to achieve economic ends. But an economic end is a need, which are usually expressed as wants. There are a lot of different alternatives by which a need can be expressed. If I’m hungry, I could eat pastrami, I could eat a kale salad, I could eat mac ‘n cheese. For so long in America, amongst engineers, we’ve thought of needs as involving money and natural resources — how to get a highway built from Point A to Point B, or how to get more data processing power, stuff like that. But beauty in our lives? Art is a real need for human beings. Needs don’t necessarily have to be met by something expensive, or that has high monetary return on investment.
“Filling the need that art does seems like a practical effort as well, because it’s a real need,” Parker added. “I don’t really understand why loneliness, or existential angst, isn’t a practical issue just as much as hunger and being too cold.”
With the help of his team and Dr. Ross, Parker is planning to have PaintBot completed, tested and refined by April 12. In order to make the project possible, however, the team is making use of a new, local crowdfunding platform.
“UAB has just started a crowdfunding platform for projects there — we were planning on going with Kickstarter first…but all of the donations to this will be tax-deductible. One other thing, too: because all of the people are donating to UAB, the accounting is connected, so if we need to buy components before the campaign is over, we can do that,” Parker said.
The PaintBot crowdfunding initiative will launch at crowdfund.uab.edu on Jan. 30, and Parker hopes that a successful result will have ramifications well beyond the city’s arts community.
“I don’t have much knowledge about business in Birmingham, but I’ve heard that Birmingham has a great technology community,” Parker said. “There are a lot of fantastic people here, but there’s a real need for local capital available for investment. I hope that this could be a good test case for something that could get funded by the community that doesn’t have to have a single angel investor or venture capital firm.”
While Parker doesn’t see the PaintBot model thriving nationally — he’s as familiar with PaintBot’s limitations as anybody — he believes it could be an ideal fit for Birmingham’s unique economic and artistic ecosystem.
“I feel like it could work in Birmingham because it was made in Birmingham, it was funded by citizens of Birmingham and it has designers in Birmingham in mind,” Parker said. “It’s completely contextualized.”
The PaintBot crowdfunding initiative will have a launch party at Carrigan’s Public House at 8 p.m. on Jan. 30, featuring music from the Expandables. For more information about the project, like R2 PaintBot on Facebook.