Biological Translation: Virtual Code, Form, and Interactivity

Biological Translation: Virtual Code, Form, and Interactivity

Collin Hover (University of Texas at Arlington, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0942-6.ch010


This chapter explores the use of code, form, and interactivity in translating biological objects into mathematically generated digital environments. The existence of a mathematical language contained in all physical objects that is similar in function to DNA in organisms is proposed as a core component and driving force of this exploration. Relative to current education tactics, using code, form, and interactivity as a set of common lexicons creates an increasingly universal method, to explore, understand, and teach this hidden biological language by re-writing its algorithms in ways we may readily recognize and absorb. Two case studies of the designer’s own work, (a) Clouds & Ichor, and (b) Stream, will be used to demonstrate and ground the concepts being discussed. In both projects, a natural learning experience is at the core of the biological process.
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Strange Behavior

Figure 1.

Clouds & Ichor, located at (© 2010, C. Hover. Used with permission).


If I told you that I had a material, one made expressly for the purpose of play and, dare I say it, magic, and that had a mind of its own and could not be hurt, you might think me odd. Perhaps it will bring to mind the fictional liquid metal T-1000 character from Terminator 2, or an imagined combination of the material with the metal. If I then gave you this material within the bounds of a room, your first action would likely be to touch it, and your second to physically set up a forceful meeting between the material and the walls of that space. I would not think this strange at all, and in fact this is the point. Not, specifically, to slam this material into walls (though it would be fun), but rather to play with a digital material informed by properties of amoebic organisms and liquid, that exists in an environment created to promote agency. Agency, as explained so well by Beeker Northam, executive strategy director for creative communications agency Denstu London, may be “the ability to control and affect your own and your shared environment in the face of communications. Magic, play, and information is a choice, never an infliction” (Northam, 2010). The latter part of this definition will be revisited later in this chapter (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Stream and user interacting, located at (© 2010, C. Hover. Used with permission.).


Now if, after becoming familiar with the above project, I explained that I had several thousand creatures composed entirely of a drive to learn more about human body language and environment, as if curiosity might be considered a physical material, you may not find this so strange. I would also not think it out of place for you to make the most wild and outlandish movements with your limbs and body should you (and perhaps others) find yourself face to face with a group of these creatures. It seems difficult, when presented with a physical or digital system that exhibits sentience, for us humans, to resist exploring and interacting with it. This is the concept of polite information, wherein something earns curious attention instead of needing to interrupt for attention (Northam, 2010).

What we might encounter here is a swarm or flock of relatively diminutive creatures, just as curious about our actions as we of theirs, and in communication with the environment they “see” through colored bioluminescence. The behavior of this group of creatures is based on the “scale-free flocking” (Hayes, 2011) methods used by flocks of starlings, as discovered and explained by STARFLAG researchers: “Scale-free correlations imply that the group is, in a strict sense, different from and more than the sum of its parts. The effective perception range of each individual is as large as the entire group and it becomes possible to transfer undamped information to all animals, no matter their distance, making the group respond as one” (Cavagna et al., 2010). Though it is neither initially obvious nor intentional, observers – through their interaction with these creatures – become performers in a live generated play of social experiences and ambient information. Utilizing only consumer level technology (and only the cheapest of it), this project comes together physically by watching the environment through a web camera, translating this visual data into the language of the creatures, allowing each of the creatures to interpret and react to the data through group decisions, and finally translating these decisions back into visual data which the “performers” see on screen as the creatures follow and swarm around their bodies. I have observed quite a few people's performances with these swarming creatures, and this simple matching of designer's purpose with live interaction never ceases to bring laughter to both the “performers” and me.

I have titled these two projects “Clouds & Ichor,” found at

I used these experiments as a step into the shallow end of a mathematical structure that defines our reality. The idea here is that for each object or system in our universe, from the unthinkably small atom to the infinitely large planet, there may be a set of rules, equations, or patterns that it follows. Some of these patterns are seemingly specific, such as the rule of the binary tree, where each branch can either split into two new branches or continue as a single branch. Other patterns are multipurpose, such as the atomic hypothesis: “all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another” (Feynman, 1989). Both of these patterns seem to define the behavior, appearance, and functionality of part(s) of our universe.

Here I will propose a universal human set of languages and argue that we can use these languages for exploratory travel between the natural systems of our universe and each of their individual underlying rule sets or patterns. I hope to demonstrate, using these projects and other examples, reasons for increased crossover between design, science, and art through a biologically inspired, creative computing process I refer to as “Biological Translation.”

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