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Wojciech Jarosz, an assistant professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, and his collaborators invented a 'smart' paint spray can that robotically reproduces photographs as large-scale murals. Source: Wojciech JaroszStreet art has long been ingrained in modern culture. While graffiti artists like Banksy are popular, with their work sometimes fetching thousands of dollars at an auction, spray painting is still illegal. It’s a labor carried out under the cover of night with stencils on hand.

Now, robots are getting into the spray paint game.

Researchers from ETH Zurich, Disney Research Zurich, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University have developed a “smart” spray can capable of painting murals all on its own. All the user has to do is wave the spray can over a canvas.

“Our system aids the user in tasks that are difficult for humans, especially when lacking artistic training and experience,” the researchers wrote in a paper. “It automatically tracks the position of the spray can relative to the mural and makes decisions regarding the amount of paint to spray, based on an online simulation of the spraying process.”

Due to the difficulty of obtaining permission to spray paint a building, the researchers couldn’t test their method out in the field, nor could they test it under the constraint of unpredictable weather conditions. Instead, they painted on paper sheets.

“Typically, computationally-assisted painting methods are restricted to the computer,” said study co-author Wojciech Jarosz, of Dartmouth College, in a statement. “In this research, we show that by combining computer graphics and computer vision techniques, we can bring such assistance technology to the physical world even for this very traditional painting medium, creating a somewhat unconventional form of digital fabrication.”

The “smart” spray can system consists of two webcams and QR-coded cubes for tracking, and an actuation device, which is attached to the spray can via a 3D-printed mount. The paint commands, transmitted via radio, are sent to the servo-motor that operates the nozzle. An algorithm determines the correct amount of paint to use.  

“The system performs at haptic rates, which allows the user—informed by a visualization of the image residual—to guide the system interactively to recover low frequency features,” the researchers wrote.

A video of the “smart” spray can in action can be watched here

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