Portrait-drawing robot shows CeBIT's artistic side

The Van Goghs of the world needn't worry for now, but a robot at CeBIT is drawing portraits of people at the tech show.

The Fraunhofer Institute usually uses this robot for gauging the quality of new reflective materials, but at the CeBIT show in Hanover, Germany, it used it to draw portraits. The robot took a digital photo of a person, processed it digitally, drew a line-art portrait, showed it off, erased it, then started over again.
The Fraunhofer Institute usually uses this robot for gauging the quality of new reflective materials, but at the CeBIT show in Hanover, Germany, it used it to draw portraits. The robot took a digital photo of a person, processed it digitally, drew a line-art portrait, showed it off, erased it, then started over again. Stephen Shankland/CNET

HANOVER, Germany--Who says robots don't have a sense of aesthetics?

Fraunhofer Institute showed off a robot that drew people's portraits here at the CeBIT tech show. It drew a big crowd, too--metaphorically speaking--with a steady throng watching its slow progress.

The robot actually didn't have a sense of aesthetics. Instead it had a camera, an algorithm to convert a digital photo into outlines, and an ability to draw those lines very precisely on a whiteboard.

Check the video below to see it in action. It's a thing of trigonometric beauty in its own way.

It's hard not to anthropomorphorize a robot, though, even one that's just a hulking orange arm built by Kuka. When it takes its photo, it extends toward its subject in a way reminiscent of an artist sighting down down her arm. And when it's done, it picks up the portrait and shows it off. But then it coldly wipes the image away with an eraser, evidently not attached to its work.

Fraunhofer--a research company with 60 offices and about 18,000 employees--is all about research projects that can be commercialized. You might hope for your own pet artist robot, but actually the demo more distantly related to the robot's real-world use.

That use, according to Fraunhofer researcher Martina Richter, is a protracted chore that requires a long time: carefully measuring how well new reflective materials work. It takes "several days" for one material to be tested, she said: the robot must measure reflectivity from a full range of angles relative to the material--and repeat the process for a different angle of incident light shining on the material.

It's good that someone out there is working on better materials for firefighters and nighttime joggers. I like the portraiture better, though.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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