2021 Honorable Mention – Nicholas Warren

Cellular Automata Terrain Sequencer

Medium: Video

Cellular automata are matrices of cells that follow simple, discrete rules to manage how they evolve. Most typically, these matrices are displayed as a grid of pixels, with each pixel’s state being represented by its color. A pixel looks at the state of the pixels surrounding it, and then uses that data to update its own state for the following frame. A cell will “die” (transition from on to off) when either there are too many (“overpopulation”) or too few (“loneliness”) living cells around it. It may then be “born” (transition from off to on) when the correct number of cells around it are alive. When this process is scaled up, beautifully organic forms begin to take shape. The overpopulation, loneliness, and birth thresholds can also be altered— as well as parameters such as number of states and how far out a cell looks— to achieve a huge variety of patterns.

The conceptual underpinnings of cellular automata are currently being used by Stephen Wolfram, along with a large group of researchers, to develop a new fundamental theory of the universe. Wolfram asserts that the simple computations found in cellular automata, when scaled up enough, could hold the key to uncovering and understanding how our universe has evolved from absolute simplicity to unthinkable levels of complexity.

The Cellular Automata Terrain Sequencer strives to establish an accessible, intuitive connection to such a fundamentally important idea. Without getting caught up in the scientific jargon and complex mathematics of the phenomenon, a user can easily gain an understanding of the emergent forms of an automaton. Wave fronts, holes, and receding borders become materials for direct exploration, as well as a compositional tool for generating beautiful, organic-sounding music. The sound design itself expresses the beauty to be found in simple processes. Relatively simple waveforms, along with a basic filter and delay, leverage cellular evolution to create rich textures that live somewhere between the artificial and natural, just as the cellular automata themselves do.