Computing a New Era in Art

Words like "pioneering" and "visionary" are often overused. But when you're describing a serial innovator like A. Michael Noll ’71EE – a man who helped bring visual art and digital technology together – it's hard to avoid them.

The day Noll received his doctorate from Poly (then known as Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn) was the same day he left for Washington, DC, to take a job as the technical assistant to the President's Science Advisor. Noll later worked in the marketing and consumer products departments of AT&T, where he helped invent new products and services; taught telecommunication technology at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts; and was dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he is professor emeritus. (He is also director of technology research at the Columbia Business School's Columbia Institute for Tele-Information.)

Before all that, however, Noll did groundbreaking work in computer-generated art at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. in Murray Hill, NJ – work that prefigured modern computer graphics and virtual reality.

The origins of that work lay in a happy accident. In 1962, Noll was investigating a novel method for determining the fundamental frequency of speech, and printing data on a shared microfilm plotter. When a colleague's plot came out garbled due to a programming error, the two joked about the abstract computer art that had accidentally been created. "I thought, let's do it deliberately," recalls Noll, who had long been interested in visual art and stereoscopic 3-D imagery.

At first, Noll generated two-dimensional images using algorithms that employed a limited degree of randomness. "Gaussian Quadratic" used coordinates derived from a quadratic equation and the Gaussian probability distribution to produce a series of lines that vaguely resembled the Cubist painting "Ma Jolie," by Pablo Picasso. "Computer Composition with Lines," meanwhile, intentionally mimicked the painting "Composition with Lines" by the Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian. In a paper published in The Psychological Record, Noll reported that a majority of Bell Labs employees he surveyed preferred the computer version to the original, and thought that it was a genuine Mondrian. Soon after, Noll began generating stereoscopic 3-D images, both to represent scientific data and for purely artistic purposes.

In 1965, some of Noll's computer-generated images were displayed at the Howard Wise Gallery in Manhattan, along with experimental works by his Bell Labs colleague, the visual neuroscientist Bela Julesz. It was the first major exhibit of computer art in the United States. Noll's works have since entered the permanent collections of institutions such as MOMA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

By then, Noll was attending night classes at Poly and creating full-blown 3-D movies; footage from an early film that shows a rotating four-dimensional hypercube can be seen on YouTube (search for "Hypercube 3D Computer Animation"). By applying the same technique to letters and words, Noll generated some of the earliest computer-animated title sequences for film and television: one for an animated short film about computer research at Bell Labs, and another for an NBC television special written by Arthur C. Clarke. Inspired by a performance he attended at the New York City Ballet, Noll also produced a computer-generated ballet in which animated stick figures spun randomly in three dimensions. Writing in Design Quarterly, Noll predicted that the new field of computer art would lead to "a new breed of artist-computer scientist" – a prediction that has come to pass in the person of the contemporary graphic artist or designer.

But it was Noll's PhD dissertation that most fully realized his dual interest in computers and visual art.

By the late 1960s, Bell Labs had one of the earliest digital computer systems dedicated entirely to laboratory research, and Noll designed a stereoscopic display for it, along with a 3-D input device that resembled a joystick. By manipulating the joystick, users could draw in three dimensions and see a 3-D stereoscopic display of the results.

"Ultimately," Noll says, "the idea occurred to me to motorize the input device to return some force feedback to it."

As a user pushed against an object with the joystick, the motors would push back, adding a tactile dimension to the virtual experience.

The resulting invention, which Noll dubbed a "feelie" machine, after the imaginary tactile films in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, formed the basis for his dissertation, earned him one of his six patents, and was featured in Scientific American and The New York Times. More formally described as a "tactile man-machine communications system," it would nowadays be called a haptic virtual-reality interface: Using it, a person could feel his way around a computer-simulated object, while at the same time viewing the object in virtual space. "I was astonished that it worked," Noll says. "You could feel a shape that existed only in the computer's memory."

Today, such devices play a crucial role in fields ranging from healthcare to product design, and are used to do everything from crafting virtual prototypes of dental implants to training drivers in virtual vehicles. When Noll came up with the idea more than four decades ago, however, it was a genuinely pioneering and visionary accomplishment.