Noctivagous's Desktop Drawing Machine

Noctivagous is a research project for making a new type of mechanical drawing tool, known as a drawing machine in graphic arts. A drawing machine is a system of mechanics that allows a person to make lines and combinations of lines that the hand cannot do in a consistent fashion.

An example is the harmonograph, which consists of pendulums that move simultaneously to make curvilinear figures. There is also the drawing machine with which people are familiar, the Etch-A-Sketch. The Etch-A-Sketch is a more interactive device compared to the harmonograph because it involves direct manipulation of the drawing, whereas the harmonograph is not touched once the pendulums start to swing. But the issue with both of these devices, as well as other drawing machines, is their absence of practical drawing scenarios. They lack adequate controls for what they do. No artist can use these devices despite their strong capabilities.

Examples of drawing machines. Etch-A-Sketch (left), a harmonograph drawing machine (right).

Our project has made a drawing machine that gives an artist the ability to control its output and allows for a mode of drawing that freehand work cannot easily do. It fills in the shortcomings of a device like an Etch-A-Sketch, which is limited to only a few moves, while retaining the capabilities of such a machine.

Rather than construct a totally mechanical device, such as the Etch-A-Sketch, which would require an extensive mechanical system, this is accomplished by re-using the hardware of keyboard and trackpad, configuring the two in such a way that they work in tandem to direct the desktop computer and make it feel mechanically-driven. This is possible because trackpads are much improved technologywise today, particularly the ones made by Apple, which feature touch recognition.

The desktop computer is programmed to behave like a physical drawing machine because of how the keyboard and trackpad are made to interact with each other. A person feels as if mechanically interacting with a piece of paper.

These images are not made of point-and-click lines-- they are the result of something being drawn, which means that the person is doing actual drawing. The desktop computer behaves as a sort of modified Etch-A-Sketch (without the knobs and instead with the keyboard and trackpad).

Below is a sketch that took less than 15 minutes, which is an incredibly fast period of time given what the drawing looks like (zoomed out).

We change the color palette to traditional pencil and paper (another drawing done under 15 minutes).

Another Type of Drawing Machine

A spirograph is a drawing machine in which a grooved wheel is embedded inside another wheel to produce a precise, curved drawing. A person places the tip of a pencil into the spirograph's inner wheel and then moves it in a circular motion to make a drawing.

The result is a complex set of curves that would be unfeasible to draw by hand. The spirograph is an intriguing device for this reason: with a mechanical setup, a drawing can be made that goes beyond what ordinary tools and methods of drawing can regularly do.

The major limitation of the spirograph is that it provides no controls in relation to its output. There is no easy way to know what will emerge from using it and there is also no way to take what the spirograph does and make something of sophisticated artistic value. This situation applies to other types of drawing machines as well. They make interesting outcomes, but provide no effective control over their process of drawing. Mentioned earlier, the harmonograph operates by way of pendulums to control the movement of a drawing implement.

A harmonograph drawing machine (left). Example drawing (right).

The principle of a drawing machine has potential. If a drawing machine is devised that allows for dexterous control over its drawing outcome, the device can form the basis for a truly useful tool, one that a person actively uses in the studio. This is what we have done— we have built a truly useful machine for drawing that provides an actual set of effective controls, to produce natural drawings for everyday purposes.

Our machine accomplishes this by using straight lines as its method of drawing, having the person place them consecutively, in a flow, so as to draw on the paper. The controls of the machine adjust the placement of the line being drawn and when many lines are put together an entire drawing is made. Key to what makes this a useful setup is that the feel of using it is very much like natural drawing, to the extent that a person can forget that he is not drawing by freehand.

This device could be constructed as a mechanical system, with moving parts, but instead we have digitally re-wired the computer's hardware input to act in a physical way: the keyboard and trackpad work as the physical controls of a machine, the computer screen acts as the moving page. The mouse pointer no longer serves as a pointer for clicking, but instead serves as physical input. The keyboard and trackpad serve a mechanical role, in other words. On top of this, indicator lights that would exist on a mechanical system are also placed in the computer window. The hardware of the computer becomes re-oriented physically in order to make drawing any type of linear figure a fluid process.

The keyboard and trackpad are actually the center of what makes this setup work and they are the starting point for what it does. Other parts of the system a person expects will be available, such as importing digital images, placing text, and changing palettes quickly, are integrated as well. The computer is the ideal machine medium for the job.

Our drawing tool can draw straight lines so quickly that it permits traditional architectural drafting to take place in real-time, something unknown before. Many noted works of contemporary architecture are a trivial thing to sketch using this machine.