Posted by Jake Mitchell
Flip Phillips's presented his research on visual perception for "The Resolution of Art and Science, lecture series" on Oct. 4.
His presentation consisted of an overview of his research, the significance of his findings and the impressive technology he uses. The research connects artistic ability to the research of science.
As an undergraduate, Phillips was an architecture student, which Phillips said "was a nice melding of art and engineering." He didn't finish architecture school and instead earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in computer graphics in 1986. "Back in the day, Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator were still 10 years away. We had to make our own tools or find people to help us," Phillips said. To make interesting forms using computer graphics you also had to have some sophistication in engineering.
Also as an undergraduate, Phillips pursued brain-imaging research. He worked with psychiatrists and neuroscientists on taking pictures of the brain and putting them together in 3D. The research was performed at the same time that the first MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) was developed. "I was working with science guys on engineering problems in the art school," Phillips said. He also worked seven years at Pixar Animation Studios, where he developed and used his wealth of computer knowledge. After Pixar, Phillips went on to graduate school for psychology to continue his education.
So how does art help science? "We're trying to understand how the generic human mind works. Artists are able to depict the visual world in a specific way that we can interpret. We have to take advantage of these people who are good at that and try to figure out what information they are depicting and use it to help understand the generic problem of seeing," Phillips said.
Phillips is interested in how an artist transcribes his or her visual perception to art. How do artists have different visual perceptions than non-artists? "They [artists] know how to apply visual perceptions to depicting the world; people are different at figuring these kind of things out," Phillips said.
"Painting isn't necessarily optically correct - there's a lot of cheating and slop going on. How much slop can they get away with? That depends on what your brain is doing with the information. If your brain is tolerant to slop, then the artist can get away with not depicting things correctly," Phillips said.
In other words, an artist can get away with an unrealistic depiction of an object if the viewer can still understand what he or she is looking at. People judge distance differently but not enough to make a difference in art work.
Scales, such as measurements of distances, speeds, etc., have been made so that there is a consistent and universal understanding. Without scales, there would be no mutual agreement of distance because people perceive the world differently. When people see more or less depth it is called a scaling error. Phillips said that scaling error is not completely random; when we see a painting we can distinguish what's in the background and what's not, or what's light and what's dark. Humans perceive the visual world similarly enough so that we can function as a society.
When we see a painting, "we make up the 3D visuals space, it doesn't exist" Phillips said. "You can go to the other side and see it. You're making it up and it turns out we're reasonably consistent in what we make up in terms of that depth, otherwise art wouldn't work." Our vision is consistent enough so that we basically see the same features.
To help himself and his students' research, Phillips has a 3D scanning system as well as a 3D printer. The scanner reads objects as if it were a MRI. The machine sends red horizontal and vertical lines all over the object to perceive its height, width and depth, and transcribes that to the computer.
On the computer you can manipulate the object any way that you want, testing your visual ability. The 3D printer prints objects made out of plastic and glue. Phillips uses these objects to see people's ability to remake the model out of clay, and see how close they come to the original object. Artists strive for this ability. They perceive and transcribe the visionary world as closely as possible, which is the meaning of "The Resolution of Art and Science."