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Lucas Kilian,
ABC Buechlein, 1627


What is it?
The Mimeticon is both an artwork about the history of writing and a functioning search engine. Instead of entering search words or keywords you are able to create a "keypicture" or image. It than takes this image and returns a set of visually similar images. It is a bit like Google's image search but with the fundamental difference that it relies solely on matching the visual features of images. And by constructing the search image out of letters from the history of the modern Roman alphabet we can see how words and images have depended on each other right back to their origins in the "mimetic" signs of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The images it returns don't make sense?
Sometimes the images it returns are obviously similar and sometimes they seem random, mistaken or "false positives". When the software is searching for matches it is entirely uninfluenced by the meaningful content of the pictures it is comparing, nor by any kind of object recognition, file names or textual annotations. It is purely looking for similarities in their visual features - composition, light and dark, shape and pattern. If you look carefully you can often see visual elements that match your keypicture, but in ways that are quite unexpected. As you get used to understanding this "algorithmic" matching process you will find that the software is teaching you to "see" images in the same that it does!

Why draw images with alphabets?
The alphabet is not just a collection of arbitrary signs for vowels and consonants. It is also a visual vocabulary, developed over thousands of years for distinctiveness of letterform, recognisability and ease of writing and reproduction. Many letters that represent similar sounds have similar shapes as well, such as "M" and "N". The letters are a set of visual elements that can function as a set of basic drawing tools just as the geometric primitives of circle, square and triangle do. By recovering this purely visual function we can also glimpse how new techniques such as the "search engine" can be used to extend the possibilities of writing new forms that are not constrained by the conventional distinctions between words and images. The search results become a form of visual sentence construction but using an entirely different syntax.

Why use these alphabets?

The Mimeticon allows you to draw using letters from a set of alphabetical "palettes". All these alphabets have been chosen from significant stages in tyhe history of our "modern " Roman alphabet. As you can see if you flip through them, many letters can be traced back to hieroglyphs in use when Egyptian writing first began over 5,000 years ago. The shapes of modern letterforms can still be detected in Egyptian pictograms and ideograms. The letter "M" was originally the Egyptian word for "water" (pronounced "net"), which it mimics with a little icon of waves. The sounds or phonemes of our letters can also often be traced back to the first fully phonetic alphabet - a Semitic script over 4,000 years old.
For more information on this historical background see the About page.

Why call it a Baroque search engine?
The Baroque was the last period of history when pictures and words were not considered distinct modes of language and expression. The examples down the left margin are taken from an ornamental alphabet designed by Lucas Killian in 1627. These figurative motifs recall the origins of the Roman alphabet that goes back to Egyptian mimetic hieroglyphs. The writing that appears beneath your search image is also a Baroque style caption composed out of the file names of the search results, reminiscent of the Emblem books of the C17th. This search engine has a Baroque sensibility in that it uses the search engine as a mechanism by which words and images can be transformed between each other, reinterpreted and rewritten, all within the context of the visual history of the alphabetic sign.
For more information on this context see the About page.

The results still look inaccurate. What's the best way to draw with this?
Because the search engine only looks at the strongest visual features it will tend to produce more obviously "accurate" results if you draw the most graphic images (see examples at bottom of the main page). Try keeping your images very simple and direct, drawing only the most significant visual structure or skeleton and skipping the details. So if you are drawing a face, concentrate on the darkest features such as the eyes, mouth, hair and their relative positions. Sometimes simple patterns can retrieve interesting matches. If you draw a letter "O" in the middle of the canvas it will treat it as a completely image to if you place it at the top left. And remember that if an image of a face is half in shadow then it is that shadow silhouette that will become the most likely feature for it to match on - it won't recognise eyes themselves.
Remember you can also use the Eraser tool if you want a more exact shape - you could even use it like a paintbrush.

Where do the image results come from?
The images it retrieves are meant to reflect the scope of a commercial internet search engine. But because I can't afford to store the billions of images that a service like Google or Alta Vista can provide, the database that The Mimeticon searches typically contains a few tens of thousands of images. These have been collected at random from the internet and are periodically updated. So it is a bit like a shifting "window" of all the images on the internet. So if you submit the same image a few weeks later you may get different results. The larger I make this database the more accurate the results are likely to be - it can only return the nearest matches to the images available in its current database.

How does it work?
Searching by visual appearance is known as CBIR (Content Based Image Retrieval) and is still an emergent technology (that means it doesn't work perfectly). It is an enormously more complex process than textual matching because images are formed of continuous surfaces of features and can vary in all the two dimensional aspects of size, orientation, etc. They are not composed of a standard and limited set of signs. The Mimeticon uses a piece of open source software called "imgSeek" for its basic image recognition engine. imgSeek uses a technique called "multi-resolution wavelet decomposition" to break images down into bits it can search and compare. It is a bit like a compression algorithm like JPEG.

Who are you?
Richard Wright has worked as a media artist for over twenty years, specialising in digital imagery, history and parallels between the Baroque and digital culture. For more info see www.futurenatural.net.

Credits
Concept and design: Richard Wright
Technical Assistance: Tony Shaper
Hosted by: Furtherfield.org
Funded by a grant from Arts Council England 2006





Latin 100 AD


Greek 500 BC


Phoenician 1100 BC


Semitic 2000 BC


Egyptian 3300 BC