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UW ECE alumnus Victor Wong pushes boundaries in art and technology

February 2, 2024

UW ECE alumnus Victor Wong (BSEE ’89) has had a fulfilling career combining his engineering background with visual arts, most notably with A.I. Gemini, an AI-powered robot that creates paintings using traditional Chinese art techniques. Wong (left) with A.I. Gemini starting on a new piece, and UW Assistant Director of International Advancement Doug Wallack in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Doug Wallack

Adapted from an article by Doug Wallack, UW International Advancement

In the quiet of vfxNova studios, overlooking Kowloon Bay, the robot dips its paint brush in the pigment, and with smooth, near-silent movements, it extends its single orange arm to apply vibrant cerulean, deep forest greens, and gentle shades of fern to the rice paper canvas below. The colors on the page gently melt into each other, as the machine dips and paints, dips and paints – and an abstract springtime landscape gradually appears below. The work in progress is equally beautiful and uncannily human.

The robot, known as A.I. Gemini, is the brainchild of UW ECE alumnus Victor Wong (BSEE ’89). Wong spent three years teaching the AI-powered robot to paint in the traditional Chinese xieyi style. As the first of its kind in the world, it made waves in the art, tech and pop culture worlds when it came on the scene in 2019, garnering coverage from Reuters, the South China Morning Post, the Daily Mail and more. Unlike generative AI artwork programs such as Midjourney and Stable Diffusion that were subsequently released to the general public, Gemini is intrinsically material, and the works it creates reflect the dynamism of making art in the physical realm. Because Gemini debuted before the public NFT craze, producing physical paintings also had the benefit of rendering the robot’s works collectible. And indeed, the sale of its paintings, now in the hands of collectors worldwide, now exceeds $1 million cumulatively.

Far Side Of The Moon 0001, A.I, 2019. Ink on paper, 89 x 62 cm. Photo courtesy of Victor Wong

Gemini is just the latest development in Wong’s wide-ranging career as a visual artist. After graduating from the UW, Wong started up vfxNova, Hong Kong’s first computer graphics and visual effects house, which helped to develop the hardware and software necessary to advance CGI for the film industry. In the intervening decades, the award-winning firm has gone on to produce more than 800 TV advertisements and designed special effects for blockbuster video games such as the Final Fantasy series as well as for over 100 films, including “Iron Man,” “Fantastic Four,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D,” “Rise of the Legend,” “CJ7,” “Initial D,” among others. Today, vfxNova employs more than 150 artists and engineers with design houses in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Foshan.

In May 2022, the College of Engineering recognized Wong as a Diamond Awardee for entrepreneurial excellence and significant contributions to the field of engineering. At the time, Hong Kong’s pandemic-era travel restrictions were still firmly in place, and Victor and his wife Thalia Tau were unable to attend the award ceremony in Seattle. Months later, in late February 2023, Husky alumni in Hong Kong were finally able to gather in-person at a dinner to celebrate Wong’s achievement. Wong was jovial: catching up with old friends, mugging for the camera with other guests – his crystal Diamond Award in hand, and regularly whipping out a tablet mid-conversation to show others proper-sized images of his firm’s recent installations and Gemini’s latest paintings. When asked about how his experience as a UW engineering student influenced his career, he grew reflective. “A UW education doesn’t supply you with all the answers,” he said, “But it gives you the right questions.”

Wong as a UW undergraduate, in front of Drumheller Fountain.

As Wong walked through the story of developing A.I. Gemini, it was clear that a spirit of inquiry suffused his process: a sense of playful curiosity about what constitutes innovation vs. invention in art, and a willingness to question how technology can be used to compliment the deeply human process of making art.

At every turn, Wong seemed to ask how he could build a painting robot that would be both meaningfully grounded in tradition but that would also tilt towards novelty and creative discovery. At a foundational level, other generative AI platforms are trained by digesting huge libraries of existing images in order to mimic them in one remixed form or another, according to the prompts of the user. For Wong, while building such a program might have represented a technically interesting challenge, he found the level of artistic predictability it entailed to be creatively underwhelming. “It’s kind of duplicating human work,” he said – ultimately a dead end, when as an artist, “you want to create something you do not know.” So rather than training Gemini on the content of existing xieyi paintings, his training data set sought to impart technique.

“I did not scan in paintings of the masters,” Wong said, “I treated it as a child.” Just as he himself had been taught the basics of calligraphy as a child, he trained Gemini on brush technique: a heavier brushstroke makes a wide line; more water in the ink yields a more diffuse effect on the paper. Drawing on his career in film, Wong also programmed in a sensibility about framing and angles – how to achieve balance and visual interest within the confines of a canvas.

Wong, as a young man, standing beside a phoenix in his family’s shop. Photo courtesy of Victor Wong

The same desire to nudge Gemini towards creating something unknown rather than executing perfect artistic mimicry informed Wong’s decision to develop it as a robot working with physical media rather than a digital program. The brushes, the ink, the slight imperfections in the texture of the outcome of a given work will never be entirely predictable.

It’s not the only way that elements of chance are built into Gemini’s process, either: Wong explains that Gemini is linked to real-time weather data to facilitate a painterly mood – or “emotional emulation.” If Gemini is painting on a rainy day, the robot’s algorithm will instruct it to dilute the ink with more water than typical, creating a washed-out effect in the painting, much as a human artist like Wong himself is influenced by his immediate work environment.

Wong and A.I. Gemini. Photo courtesy of Victor Wong

For an artist whose work had centered on the digital realm, Wong’s choice to emphasize materiality in an AI project seems curious. But at this point in his career, he said, “the digital world is so easy,” and the challenges of physical mediums beckoned. Partly, this represented a sort of artistic homecoming for Wong. When he was young, his father ran a shop making lanterns from bamboo and paper. The business was a family enterprise: his mother helped to color the lanterns and Wong himself aided in the assembly. These were elaborate handicrafts well beyond simply lighting features – paper renderings of mythical creatures, bicycles, cars and more. For Wong, teasing out the intricate forms from humble components was a formative experience. “I am obsessed with materials,” he said. His work with Gemini continues hand-in-hand with other more nascent experiments combining, for instance, AI and 3D-printed ceramics – all restlessly hybridizing tradition and technology.

Asked what advice he would give to students, Wong did not hesitate: “Put yourself in a mode that is always curious,” he said, “You’ve got to love our world. If you love our world, you find all this amazing stuff.”