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Digital stained glass

Lego has been called the ultimate geek toy because it’s so deeply mathematical. Any kid that messes around with Lego quickly learns interesting aspects of division, multiplication, and even calculus-like ratio shifting and fractal concepts of internal self-replication. That’s because when you try to assemble complex 3D figures, you have to do a lot of subtle counting — particularly if you’re attempting to create a curved angle using square-edged bricks.

Of course, any kid who hacks away at this stuff soon realizes the similarity between pixels on a screen and Lego blocks. Computer icons are created from zillions of teensy blocks, and this is precisely what’s given birth to the enormous community of Lego artists who replicate famous pixellated images — from Mario to the Macintosh boot-screen design — using Lego bricks.

Now a company called Pixelblocks has gone one step further. They’ve engineered one-centimeter cubes that click together on all six sides, with different levels of gradation, to allow for ever more subtle curves. (I’m not explaining this well, but check out the animation that shows how it works.) Even cooler, the blocks are transluscent, so anything you make can be backlit — precisely like an on-screen pixellated image, or perhaps a stained glass window. Indeed, the company itself refers to Pixelblock creations as “digital stained glass,” which nicely closes the historic loop: It reminds us that some of the the core graphical technologies of today’s computers were borrowed directly from the techniques of ancient artists. Antialiasing, for example, was originally invented by medieval tapestry makers, and is a regular part of today’s needlepoint designs.

Pixelblocks has even created a little online application you can use to process a digital photo and create a block-plan you can print up that will let you render the picture in Pixelblocks. Ian of Water Cooler Games bought a set of the blocks and used it to render a Pacman ghost in “vulnerable” mode! Imagine taking a picture of your spouse’s head and rendering it as a three-foot-tall translucent Pixelblock image.

Actually, who am I kidding. The first thing people are gonna use this for is to generate enormous pixellated versions of Jenna Jameson.

(Thanks to Ian for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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