How to Make a Bonsai Tree out of Math

by Paul Cantrell | at MinneBar 10 | 10:15 – 11:05 in Brand | View Schedule

The Como Conservatory asked Bust Out Solutions to build an interactive iPad kiosk for visitors to make a virtual bonsai. The trees are algorithmically generated, so every one is unique. You might have seen us demo the finished app at MinneDemo a few years back, but this time, for MinneBar, I’ll share the secret recipe and show how we actually built it!

They’re made out of math

The goal was to engage and educate visitors (and keep the kids busy for 10 minutes). This posed an interesting kind of problem very different from traditional mathematical modeling: we needed a software model of a tree which was not necessarily predictively accurate, but perceptually and emotionally engaging. What makes a tree seem like a tree? What makes a shrub different from a mature tree? What makes a tree exciting enough that a kid doesn’t walk away from it?

This type of programming & mathematical modeling — the kind where the goal is not scientific, but aesthetic — is of widespread and rapidly growing importance. It’s the work video game designers have done for decades, but it’s increasingly pervasive throughout the world of human-computer interaction. It’s what shot the iPhone from “they’ll never take a bite out of Nokia” to … well, now.

This talk will walk through the story of how we created the virtual bonsai by bringing together graphic design, programming, and mathematics. Along the way, we will get a taste of graphics techniques from the game industry, and encounter tidbits from a surprisingly diverse array of mathematical disciplines.

P.S. Note to the math-averse: This talk will be accessible to a broad audience, and will not require knowledge of mathematics or programming. The ideas are intuitive, there will be lots of pretty pictures, and the results are fun!

P.P.S. There will be a few juicy technical details for mathematicians too.

P.P.P.S. Fractals! Fractals! Fractals!


Paul Cantrell

Paul fell in love with programming at first sight on an Apple ][+ and never looked back. He is a freelance software developer who (mostly) works with Bust Out Solutions, and teaches computer science at Macalester College.

Living a secret double life as a classically trained composer and pianist and artistic director of The New Ruckus, he brings a musician's passion for aesthetics and nuanced detail to the craft of writing software, thus making his bio sound all fancy.