A painting that moves? Behrend art instructor shows what new tech can do

A digital painting of a ship next to a large wave.

Heather Cole, a lecturer in digital arts at Penn State Behrend, created this digital painting, which is embedded with computer code. Using the Blippar app, viewers can make the ship move.

Credit: Heather Cole

ERIE, Pa. — Remember in “Scooby-Doo,” when the paintings had eyes that moved, following Scooby through the room?

Heather Cole has made something cooler. She created a fabric painting, “Don’t Give up the Ship,” with an image of the U.S. Brig Niagara, the flagship from the Battle of Lake Erie, at the left edge. She embedded it with computer code, which adds an element of augmented reality: Using the Blippar app, viewers can make the ship move.

“I work with a lot of different art forms,” said Cole, a lecturer in digital arts at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. “I also work with a lot of software. I had been searching for a way to merge those influences and bring in different elements to make a truly interactive piece.”

Erie Arts and Culture and TEDxErie commissioned the work, which was used as the backdrop for a TEDx program at Erie’s Warner Theatre. Cole left space at the center of the 20-foot fabric, where the TEDx speakers would stand. To the left, she painted the Niagara, its sails afire, its hull held up by three hands. On the right she added a digital swirl, a rising wave patterned with Photoshop, Illustrator and Black Ink software.

She developed the first draft over two weekends. It took four more weeks to embed and test the augmented reality. Using the Blippar app on a phone or tablet, viewers see the Niagara move to the right, its sails pocked with digital fire. Then it rises, lifted by the wave.

“In my artwork, each of us is the ship,” Cole said in her TEDxErie talk. “We will have our trials, and our sails may feel like they are on fire, and the tide may try to smack us down, but as long as we have each other to help raise us up, we will weather any storm together.”

Viewers can click on the ship and post its image into another photo on their phone. At the TEDx event, the backdrop doubled as a photo booth.

“Audience engagement is always a challenge at events like this,” said Jonathan D’Silva, organizer and lead curator of TEDxErie. “We had an opportunity to try something that few, if any, had ever done before.”

When the event ended, Cole saw another opportunity to use the piece. She and Erie Arts and Culture gifted it to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, which hung it in the upper floor of Kochel Center. Students pass it on the way into the library.

“The AR still works,” Cole said. “I see people playing with it.”

Eventually, the technology will be outdated. The AR may stop working. The painting will still serve its purpose, however.

“It’s still a visual, and it’s still pretty,” Cole said. “It still says what it’s supposed to say to the people who see it. Our students are taking that in, even if they aren’t using the technology.”