The SketchBot interface is composed of a series of 21st-century tools, including a digital camera, computer software, and a robot. But it also makes use of a natural material older than mankind itself: sand. The sand is incorporated into a multistep process that results in a portrait that can be wiped away to make way for the next image. The process works like this: First, the camera takes a picture, from which the software extracts a human face. Once this portrait is rendered as a line drawing in digital form, the software sends a series of commands to the robot, which reproduces the image by etching it into a bed of sand. But why sand? It proved to be both a practical and environmentally conscious choice. Because the SketchBot can make upwards of 10 million images, it made sense to incorporate something reusable rather than paper, which could only be used once.

The software is perhaps the most versatile tool in the SketchBot and is made up of three parts: a Web-based user interface to take and select images, a server that queues the images and drawings, and a controller that operates the robot arm to make the drawing. These discrete tasks suggest other possible applications for the Sketchbot‘s software, which is available open source via Google’s Chrome WebLab. The Sketchbot was originally commissioned by the Science Museum, London, for the Chrome Web Lab exhibition in 2012.

The SketchBot and other tools appear in the exhibition Tools: Extending Our Reach, 12 December 2014 – 25 May 2015.

Andrew Gardner is currently a graduate student intern and a former summer 2014 Peter Krueger curatorial intern at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. He is pursuing a master’s in Design History from the Bard Graduate Center, expected 2015.

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