In 1968 the US Science fiction writer Philip K Dick wrote a novel entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about a future in which a bounty hunter pursues sociopathic androids that have escaped from custody. The book got a second lease of life when it was used as the basis for the film Blade Runner with Harrison Ford and a young Daryl Hannah, and a third ‘electric sheep’ was adopted for the name of the Internet’s first social-networking screensaver.
The Electric Sheep website describes it as a ‘collaborative abstract artwork’. Like many screensavers, it uses a complex mathematical algorithm, but the difference is that users can feed their opinions back into the algorithm by ‘voting’ with their keyboards while the program is running. Scott Draves, the creator of Electric Sheep, began it in 1999 with an algorithm called ‘Flame’ which originally produced static images. The move to collaborative animated images came soon afterwards. The site describes the process as follows:
Each participating computer follows mathematical instructions, Draves’ Flame algorithm, to render its own piece of the larger work, as seen in the table at left. The images are sent back to a central server which compresses them into animations which are sent back out to the viewers. The electricsheep.org website shows the family tree for each sheep, including its parents and offspring, and viewers can track family resemblance.
The site also includes samples and compressed images of the most recent developments in the algorithm.
So what does it look like? Like this:
The screenshots are taken from the Screensaver dialog box in the Control Centre, but of course the full screen displays are even more impressive. It’s in the Mint repository, and it’s open source. In addition to setting it up as a screensaver, you can also run it in MPlayer via the terminal window with ‘electricsheep’. Note that the first time you install it it may take a while to download its seed files, and may not start to run until your next logon.
Draves has also created a ‘visual-musical instrument’ called Bomb which is not in the Mint repository.