This article is written from the perspective of the artist, programmer, and exhibitor of the Mimetic Starfish, a gestural responsive ALife artwork first created for the Millennium Dome in 2000 and recently exhibited at the Emoção Art.ficial in Brazil in 2012. The author concludes with the suggestion that despite the advances in technology and the ubiquitous presence of touch and gestural interfaces, it is the underlying aesthetic and socially engaging qualities of the Mimetic Starfish that ensure its currency, presence, relevance, and continuing exhibition.

1 The Millennium Dome (2000)

The Mimetic Starfish (originally entitled the Neural Net Starfish, Figure 1a) was created in 1999 as a commission for the Millennium Dome, a showcase that set out to awe and inspire the general public in the spirit of the Great Exhibition, London, 1851. The Millennium Dome consisted of a number of themed zones, and the Neural Net Starfish was exhibited in the Mind Zone designed by Zaha Hadid, where it received a glowing review from The Times:

The Mind Zone does contain the best bit of the entire dome: The Neural Net Starfish. A larger-than-life, gold, 3-D starfish has been somehow incorporated into a marble table top.

It is incredibly lifelike and responds to human contact by retracting disdainfully or stretching out a tentacle in friendship when a hand approaches. —The Times, Saturday, 8 January, 2000

The installation ran constantly without fail for a year; it was interacted with by many thousands of visitors and created a sense of magic, mystery, and awe in people of all ages and walks of life.

Figure 1. 

(a) Neural Net Starfish (image courtesy of Cohen Wolf). (b) Alembic, 1997 (photography by Douglas Cape). (c) Biotica, ALife creatures (screen capture).

Figure 1. 

(a) Neural Net Starfish (image courtesy of Cohen Wolf). (b) Alembic, 1997 (photography by Douglas Cape). (c) Biotica, ALife creatures (screen capture).

At the end of the exhibition, evidence of engagement and intense interactivity was clearly visible on the aluminum projection surface, which in parts had been physically worn away as a result of people stroking the limbs of the virtual starfish.

Behind the projection, software written in C++ simulates the 3D properties of muscles, skin, and a neural net to create an organic form with lifelike behavior. A hidden infrared camera detects the visitor's hands, which the virtual starfish reacts to. If they move slowly, a tentacle reaches out towards a hand; if they move too quickly, it jumps back as if startled. Stroking the skin of the virtual starfish triggers the firing of artificial neurons, producing undulations, quivers, and pulses of colors.

The inspiration for the movement and behavior of the Neural Net Starfish arose from a childhood experience observing the stalklike eye of a snail suddenly retracting when surprised.

2 Alembic, Biotica, and Art as a Mode of Enquiry (1995–2000)

In 1995 I was a Research Fellow in Computer Related Design at the Royal College of Art, where I used art as a mode of enquiry as a research methodology to challenge the conventional paradigms associated with human-computer interaction and real-time 3D visualization. The outcome of this research was Alembic, an alchemical “virtual unreality” installation that used the medium of virtual reality (VR) to create a multi-user unencumbered interactive experience of dynamic form (Figure 1b).

Alembic used a real-time dynamic particle model to simulate the states of physical matter in relation to energy changes. Sensing was achieved using the MIT Fish—a four-channel theremin-like device. Under a rubber mat around a circular central projection area, a layer of foil produced a transmission signal; participants walking on the mat literally became mobile transmitters. Four aerials at the corners of the work, corresponding to the four elements air, earth, fire, and water, sensed the proximity of participants and altered the temperature of the virtual Alembic. In addition, by moving nearer or further from the projection, viewers could exert a force on the simulated matter and affect its form. Filtered white noise, suggesting the changing temperatures, produced auditory feedback as participants moved near each aerial. In order to complete the immersive quality of the work, 3D ChromaDepth glasses were worn by participants, producing the illusion of a spherical ball of matter cutting through the gallery floor.

Alembic was first exhibited at the Bonington Gallery, Nottingham, in 1997, and subsequently at ISEA97 and the ICA in London. After Alembic I commenced the Biotica research project, setting out to harness the power of emergence to create a primitive soup from which we hoped artificial life creatures would spontaneously emerge. Sadly, this did not happen, and we had to physically engineer the construction of the cellular creatures. This was achieved using a finite state automata language which acted as a form of digital DNA, defining the growth, characteristics, and physical form of the cellular ALife organisms.

Although we did not manage to harness the power of emergence to produce ALife organisms, we were surprised by a different type of emergence, that of group behavior—unpredicted organizational emergence from the complex interaction of the cellular neural net creatures, swarming, chasing, rhythmic dances, and pattern formations (Figure 1c).

The underlying structures of the Biotica creatures shared similarities with the construction of the Mimetic Starfish. Forms were constructed from single-celled units called bions, connected together via artificial muscles, skin, and neurons to create multicellular creatures. With Biotica the world was populated by simple cellular creatures, which “evolved” over time from two-celled creatures into more complex multicellular creatures. These then were free to move around in the Biotica space, reacting to each other's presence through neuron signaling, which then produced the complex emergent behavior.

The Biotica installation encapsulated our research in an attempt to engage with the public: using their arms, one person at a time would navigate in a virtual 3D world of Biotica creatures. The proximity sensing system we used was a development of the MIT Fish device first used in Alembic.

My original intention was that Biotica would provoke the question “What is it for something to be thought of as alive?” but Biotica did not work as a successful engaging installation. People found the navigational interface too difficult to use, and the visual aspect of the work was perhaps too abstract to engage with its audience.

At the end of the two-year project, a critical appraisal examining Biotica and its relationship to art, emergence, and ALife was published in the form of a book [1].

Biotica, though not entirely successful, laid the groundwork for the creation of the Mimetic Starfish. The experience of creating a somewhat overly abstracted and esoteric work inspired me to create a work where the user and visual experience would be the complete opposite of Biotica—accessible and obvious.

3 Emoção Art.ficial (2012)

When I was invited to exhibit the Mimetic Starfish at Emoção Art.ficial, I was presented with the challenge of either porting the software to a present-day Windows-based computer or finding an old computer to ship out to Brazil. Technology has moved on since 1999, and rather than try to rewrite the software, I chose to try and find an old computer to run the Mimetic Starfish, which proved quite a challenge. The machine had to have the same specification of 3D graphics capability, processing speed, and appropriate hardware interfaces to support the frame grabber and security dongle.

It was a great pleasure witnessing the delight of the school children from São Paulo. They were enchanted by the Mimetic Starfish, despite their great familiarity with touch interfaces due to the ubiquitous prevalence of smartphones and iPads.

When the Neural Net Starfish was originally shown in the Millennium Dome in 2000, such technology did not exist, and visitors would not quite believe that their hand gestures on a table top could produce a reaction from a six-foot projected starfish. Despite the fact that gestural interface technologies are now commonplace, the Mimetic Starfish encourages both social and gestural interaction through its dynamic responsiveness and has an inherent organic aesthetic quality, which continues to engage and evoke wonder even with today's modern iPhone-savvy audience. The fourteen-year-old Mimetic Starfish captured the imagination of its young audience, suggesting there is still life in artificial life art.


The author would like to thank The Royal College of Art, the Sci-Art Wellcome Trust, and Intel for supporting the development of Biotica. Biotica was a collaboration between the author, Professor Igor Aleksander at Imperial College London, and programmers and researchers Gavin Bailey and Jonathan Mackenzie. Thanks are due to Professor Aleksander for insight and advice on neural networks, and to Bailey and Mackenzie for programming and research contributions towards Biotica and the Mimetic Starfish.


Biotica: Art, emergence and artificial life
. (With essays, by
, &
Royal College of Art CRD Research Publications

Author notes


Horizon DTC, Jubilee Campus, Wollaton Road, Nottingham, NG8 1BB, UK. E-mail: psxrdbr@nottingham.ac.uk, rb@mimetics.com