Culture: Art: Sculpture: Process
The Physical Jpeg   (+11)  [vote for, against]
Interactive art installation

First, for those unaware, a little info on how Jpeg compression works. The image is cut into 8x8 blocks, which are then transformed to give their spacial frequency components. Then, depending on the quality desired, a certain amount of unwanted data is thrown away. Finally the data undergoes a number of lossless compression techniques.

The Physical Jpeg is giant electromechanical display. Instead of pixels, it uses tiles corresponding to 8x8 blocks.

On the first day of the installation, members of the public are enticed to send in pictures via social networks and mobile gizmos. The Physical Jpeg gladly springs to life and the carriage at the top zooms back and forth, dropping tiles into the grid like a game of Connect-4. The end result, however, is terrible, because the magazine contains only 8 different types of tile.

On the second day, the magazine is extended. More tiles are added, each printed with an 8x8 section of image. The choice of which tiles to print is dictated by the 'quality' parameter of the Jpeg algorithm, which has been artificially extended to well below the normal range.

By the third day, images are almost identifiable on the display. There is no colour info (we are not totally mad) and the quantization is evident. As we move from having a huge number of tiles in a small number of bins to a large number of bins with relatively few tiles, we can optimize by overprinting: almost all tiles will be a linear combination of the few basis tiles we started out with.

Upon finishing each picture, the tiles are released and fall down to a tray where they are collected and meticulously sorted by the machine. For some people, this may be the most exciting part of the exhibit.

65,536 types of tile are present by the end of the week - a number dictated by the sorting mechanism more than anything. With individual bins impractical, the carriage now has to root through buckets of tiles before finding one that it needs. The end result is still a greyscale picture of embarrassing bit-depth.

The Physical Jpeg is efficient at a microscale yet grossly inefficient at its overall goal. It is a triumph of construction and a tribute to the algorithms it is trying to describe. It is a Rube Goldberg machine that, paradoxically, is much simpler than the real method of decoding a Jpeg. Principally it is a poignant reminder of the futility of mechanical engineering in the 21st century.
-- mitxela, Jun 28 2014

Can get a bit tricky description wise.. photography_20rewor...20avoid_20verbosity
[not_morrison_rm, Jun 28 2014]

[mitxela, Jun 28 2014]

How a Linotype works
When I feel down, this film never fails to cheer me up. [mitxela, Jun 28 2014]

//futility of mechanical engineering in the 21st century//

Which aspects of the futility of engineering were you thinking of? The Internet? The ISS or Hubble Space Telescope? Artificial hearts? The channel tunnel?
-- MaxwellBuchanan, Jun 28 2014

The Honda Prius, obviously.

// we are not totally mad //

<points at door>

-- 8th of 7, Jun 28 2014

You DO have to be mad to work here?

<shuffles toward door> 'Um... doctor? am I cured yet or can I stay?'
-- Skewed, Jun 28 2014

//The Internet? The ISS or Hubble Space Telescope? Artificial hearts? The channel tunnel?////

Those are all terrific examples of engineering feats. Even so, I would like to draw your attention to the parts which say "mechanical" and "21st century."
-- mitxela, Jun 28 2014

-- theircompetitor, Jun 28 2014

Because it's a Saturday and I have literally no objective in life, I decided to spend the afternoon animating what this might look like. [Link]
-- mitxela, Jun 28 2014

//I would like to draw your attention to...//

Could you perhaps provide some examples?
-- MaxwellBuchanan, Jun 28 2014

Oh, and [+] for the illustration.
-- MaxwellBuchanan, Jun 28 2014

Yes, what MB said so eloquently.
-- blissmiss, Jun 28 2014

//some examples//

I can't think of any. But that's the point. In my eyes, all of the great engineering achievements of the last fifteen years have been electrical, civil, medical, computational... but not mechanical. So what I meant is that trying to solve today's problems through mechanical means is futile.
-- mitxela, Jun 28 2014

Ah, OK, so the final bit of your idea should be read as "the futility of trying to solve 21st century problems with mechanical engineering", rather than "the futility of 21st century mechanical engineering".

I would still disagree, however. There are some mechanisms (some developed in the 21st century) which just make you want to weep with joy at their simple ingenuity - often far superior to electronic gizmullery.

And there are many problems which cannot be solved by the application of electronics and software. A bridge, for example, is usually best implemented in hardware.

So, I am still unsure of the point you are trying to make.

Respond carefully - your bun hangs by a thread.
-- MaxwellBuchanan, Jun 28 2014

Marvellous mechanical engineering still exists, yes, but not on the scale that it used to.

Have you seen that 1960s film about how a Linotype machine works? (I'll find a link - really worth watching if you haven't seen it.) The level of complexity borders on the absurd, yet there was an era when the Linotype was not only practical, but by far the most economical method of typesetting. It's certainly possible that greater, more ingenious, more elegant, or more complex mechanical achievements will take place in the near-future, but the economic incentive has gone.

There are instances of elegant mechanical solutions in the 21st century, but vastly more problems are solved by removing moving parts entirely. And I admit this is quite often a better, cheaper, more reliable solution. But it has lost its visual appeal.

(Software solutions can be beautiful, but usually an inherent ugliness is induced because the resources are so immeasurably cheap that there is no incentive to optimize. Again, it's the economics that I'm complaining about. There are a number of examples (e.g. demoscene) of just how elegant programming can be. In a way, although we are oblivious to it most of the time, the ugliness of code is a far greater problem to me than the disappearance of mechanical engineering. It is not uncommon for the efficiency of equivalent solutions to differ by many orders of magnitude, but the sole reason to choose one over the other would be 'elegance'. )

What point am I trying to make? None, I suppose. To be brutally honest, I had written an "art" idea and felt a kind of social pressure to suggest a meaning. A real artist might have left the interpretation open. The only reason I want to build this is to gawk at the moving parts.
-- mitxela, Jun 28 2014

//Software solutions can be beautiful// but are an acquired taste: the elegance of a Dykstra algorithm, the zen-ness of a Jackson structured batch program, the stark wonder of a hand-optimized assembly routine... <sigh> mostly in contrast to the "Lookit ! a big turd made out of smaller turds, made out of even smaller turds; isn't it marvellous" stuff that's called "programming" only by the people selling it and the lawyers that are there to make sure it stays sold.

In other news, I have no clue what the Idea is about, but will probably figure it out in a bit. [edit: or watch your link, which makes it pretty obvious]
-- FlyingToaster, Jun 28 2014

//the futility of mechanical engineering//
//some examples//<b> 3D printing would be the best new example of great mech eng. But pretty much anything you use, see, touch, or even eat, has involved a mechanical engineer somewhere in it's lifecycle.
Oh, and kudos on the animation. It's quite impressive.
-- neutrinos_shadow, Jun 30 2014

Nanotech gears, materials optimization in component design, hybrid vehicle design and vehicle integration, manufacturing requirements, these are all largely mechanical problems.
-- RayfordSteele, Jun 30 2014

Having seen the illustration, I doff a fuzzy image of my hat to you, [mitxela]. [+]
-- pertinax, Jun 30 2014

+ I'm impressed by the illustration, if not bewildered by the actual description. JpegBun
-- xandram, Jun 30 2014

I like the way that we are presented with a digital rendering of a physical analogue of a digital rendering of a physical object.
-- pocmloc, Jun 30 2014

Yea, bun for the amazing illustration.
-- doctorremulac3, Jul 01 2014

random, halfbakery