Theo Jansen and his beach animals

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2005

Two people got standing ovations for their presentations at GEL. The first was Barry Schwartz for his talk on The Paradox of Choice. The second person, who gave the most fascinating presentation I've seen at a conference in a long time, was inventor/artist/mad scientist Theo Jansen. For the past fifteen years, Jansen has been creating (growing?) "beach animals" made from commonly available tools like plastic tubing, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, hose, tape, and all sorts of other stuff. Wired News did a pretty good article on Jansen earlier this year:

Jansen is evolving an entirely new line of animals: immense multi-legged walking critters designed to roam the Dutch coastline, feeding on gusts of wind. Over the years, successive generations of his creatures have evolved into increasingly complex animals that walk by flapping wings in response to the wind, discerning obstacles in their path through feelers and even hammering themselves into the sand on sensing an approaching storm.

It's hard to know where to begin in talking about what's so cool about Jansen's beach animals. They're evolved for one thing; he worked out the optimal 11-piece leg using evolutionary algorithms on a computer but now prefers to race his animals on the beach and "breed" the most successful ones together, taking the best bits from each to make their offspring better. His animals have legs, muscles (pneumatic pistons within the plastic tubing), stomachs (plastic bottles for storing air), and nerves (collections of on/off values that work pretty much like logic gates).

And watching the videos that Jansen showed...his animals were so organic and lifelike as they moved under their own power across the beach. He's got a few of the videos on his site, but for some reason, the best ones he showed at GEL are not among them. To see evolution happening like this, a clumsy, imprecise process of trial and error that nonetheless produces beautiful and organic results, it was a real treat.