CMU alumnus Scott Draves talks about Electric Sheep

Draves’ project, Electric Sheep, creates and strings abstract images together into a video that can be used as a computer screensaver.  (credit: Courtesy of Electric Sheep) Draves’ project, Electric Sheep, creates and strings abstract images together into a video that can be used as a computer screensaver. (credit: Courtesy of Electric Sheep)

Can computers be artists? Scott Draves, a Ph.D. graduate from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science and developer of the Electric Sheep project, has answered that question with a definitive “yes.”

Draves, who now works as an engineer in the mapping division at Google Inc., gave a talk last Monday at the Gates Hillman Complex about the project. He recalled how Electric Sheep began with his image-generating Flame Algorithm, which he finalized in 1991 and later released as open source in 1993.

The algorithm works by solving a massive, non-deterministic equation with thousands of parameters and millions of variables. Because the algorithm is non-deterministic, it generates a unique image every time it is run. The highly fluid and organic images that result are commonly known as Flames.
“It takes a long time for the computer to draw these pictures,” Draves explained. “It takes hours to render just one frame. Back then, in the early nineties, that’s all I was able to do ... but now, with much faster computers and with thousands of computers working together, we can actually make large-scale, animated artworks.”

The animated works Draves referred to come from his Electric Sheep project, a free program that perpetually generates Flames using his algorithm. When a computer enabled with Electric Sheep goes into screensaver mode, the Flames are strewn together into a highly abstract video. Since each Flame is a new and unique image, the computer then shares the image with other computers over the internet.

Over time, Draves added additional components to the project, including the ability for users to “like” or “dislike” certain Electric Sheep screensavers using the keyboard, telling the algorithm what sort of images to create.

Many computer users are fond of the project. According to a recent post on Draves’ blog, there are approximately 500,000 active users of the software, some of whom are Carnegie Mellon students.

“I’ve played around with the Electric Sheep screensaver before,” said Joe Frazier, a junior computer science major who attended the talk. “I thought it was really neat to see the guy who sort of came up with it all. It was good to see what his perspective on it was.”

Draves is receiving ongoing recognition for his Flame Algorithm and Electric Sheep project. His work has been featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and at the Art Basel art show in Miami.

His work has also appeared in Discover and Wired magazines. Flames have also been used in all sorts of media, ranging from big-budget films to book covers. The popular Flame editor Apophysis utilizes Draves’ algorithm.

“Generation 243,” one of Draves’ original Electric Sheep screensavers, is currently featured on a 24/7 display on campus in the Gates Hillman Complex. The School of Computer Science also recently purchased “Generation 244,” the next work in the series.

Draves, who is involved in numerous other artistic projects, also touched on a website he created called “Video Riot.” The site uses Javascript and WebGL to distort and colorize a Youtube video that a user can specify with a link. The project is located at
Electric Sheep can be found at