Editing the Shadow Volume

[Image: The multiple-shadow casting cube by Niloy Mitra and Mark Pauly].

Spotted via New Scientist is an amazing new computer model that allows designers to create objects based on the multiple and highly specific shadows that those objects will cast when lit from different angles.

Seen above is one, relatively mundane example of the technology, by Niloy Mitra and Mark Pauly: three paintings by Andy Warhol are being cast from the same object. "Their computer model can calculate the object shape needed to cast up to three distinct shadows simultaneously," New Scientist explains. The designers call it "editing the shadow volume."

Niloy's and Pauly's accompanying video is amazing:

But what if we could do this with a glass tower in midtown Manhattan? Or if there was an elevator moving upward through an all-glass shaft, and as the lights in the lobby around it switch on and off, different—often wildly unexpected—shadows are cast within the building?

What are the architectural possibilities of multiple-shadow casting design?

You hook this modeling software up to huge CNC-milling machines, and then you attach the whole assembly to a warehouse-sized block of plywood. You come back one week later to find a sprawling labyrinth of immersive three-dimensional shapes carved directly and seamlessly into the wood, like the mathematical spires of some alien cathedral—it's an extraordinarily beautiful landscape of precision-cut wood—but it's only when the lights go off above you and a wall of klieg lamps on the northern wall switch on that you see the jaw-dropping shadows this wooden landscape can cast. But then those lights turn off, and the eastern wall lights up—and more, incredible, seemingly contradictory shadows appear. Then the west wall.

Each time, an impossibly unique scene of shadows is displayed, often too complex to be believed. It is Wayang Kulit for an age of semi-intelligent milling machines and theatrical light.

Or perhaps someday the perfect, cinematic object will be designed: it rotates in all directions amidst a battery of programmed lights, and the shadows that it casts are narrative, moving scenes in a two-hour film, displayed on the walls around it.

Instead of DVDs, we will store our movies in the cuts and grooves of milled wooden objects. Mahogany harddrives. Spirit-objects brought to animate life by angled light.

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Blogger saint said...

Sun Microsystems should have their logo done up like this, it's already nice and unusual looking.

November 08, 2009 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in terms of abstract physical form vs. representational shadow, reminds me of the old school shadow art of tim noble and sue webster:

November 08, 2009 3:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And you, know, of course..... Pilobolus.

November 08, 2009 4:57 PM  
Anonymous Pete said...

The movie idea is amazing and weirdly opposed to the procedure for making bullet time effects. The idea of combining arcs of cameras, arcs of lights and these mahogany objects - imagine the dizzying bizarre filmic possibilities.

Or a rotating physical manifestation of video feedback with moving parts, hinged cubes and blocks sliding up wires or tiny balls that inflate to make pixels.

Really enjoy these speculative posts, thanks.

November 08, 2009 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps slightly off topic but with the recent Carl Sagan Day in mind I was thinking what one of these shadow objects would look like carved into a hypercube? How much information might be contained in it? and what the shadows cast into three dimensional space would look like?

November 08, 2009 6:57 PM  
Blogger David said...

This reminds me of a script I tried to write a while ago in architecture school. The idea was to calculate what size and depth of opening was required in a 3D volume in order to cast a patch of light on a given surface within the volume, and then allow this function to repeat through multiple iterations.

A machine-gun chain of times and dates ensures that a sculpture is bathed in light at the same morning hour every day of the year. Or a pool is covered by a perforated roof, through which the sun casts complex spiralling patterns at it moves throughout the year.

Or perhaps, even, the sun learns to track your movements, following you from bed to your favourite coffee spot, from the shower to the door,

November 08, 2009 10:37 PM  
Blogger nathan said...

Looks like the cover of Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter- He created a tricharacter of GEB ON A BANDSAW to illustrate the interlocking themes of his book.

November 08, 2009 11:21 PM  
Blogger Justin Groot said...

The model represented in the first image of this article is very simple to create. In Rhino 3D for example, you'd simple extrude each image to form a 3D volume, and use the "boolean difference" tool to subtract this volume from a cube. Repeat for the other two dimensions, and presto. Great idea though, definitely.

November 09, 2009 12:11 AM  
Blogger saint said...

Condo in China fell over. http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com/2009/11/different-kind-of-real-estate-crash.html

It's so well preserved, that I actually thought I was reading your blog and it was an art/architecture project of condos built sideways in China to symbolize something about modern life and juxtaposed symbols.

Turns out it was just poor engineering and they're lucky the other buildings were far enough away they didn't domino.

November 09, 2009 3:05 AM  
Blogger jens persson said...

Also checkout Ji Yeon Song's Sunlight Poem:


November 09, 2009 4:06 AM  
Blogger Waiting4Arson said...

The question remains: Is the shadow real? or the object that makes it? or the light by which it is cast?

I dunno, but you can ask Plato.

See Book 7 of The Republic.

November 09, 2009 10:25 AM  
Blogger Jack Self said...

puts me in mind of the sendai mediatheque, the glowing facades of a permeable and ephemeral architecture (review of a recent aa talk he gave)

November 09, 2009 8:52 PM  
Anonymous kashuo said...

Now can we send the model to a 3d printer an make a physical object out of it?

November 10, 2009 12:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The project page http://graphics.stanford.edu/~niloy/research/shadowArt/shadowArt_sigA_09.html has more examples.

What is really interesting (and hard to achieve directly using Rhino) is how to slightly deform the input shadows so that such a 3D object exists -- see the griffin and the walking man example. The computational framework that allows such an automatic adjustment is the heart of the work.

November 10, 2009 3:04 PM  
Anonymous Blhein said...


November 15, 2009 11:35 PM  
Blogger Kyle said...

Editing the intersection is definitely the interesting part. One artist has made this inner space the focus of his career: Larry Kagan.

You can do this with any computational geometry tools that allow intersection and extrusion, but keep in mind you might need to model the light as a point source (conic shadow) rather than using orthographic rays (cylinder/standard extrusion).

November 17, 2009 1:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Douglas Hofstadter did it first with GEB, 1979. Magic Angle Sculptures first appeared in 1986, www.jvmuntean.com

I don't see how Mitra et. al. can patent this given the earlier work.

May 27, 2011 2:43 AM  

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