It is always great to meet people who have a passion for what they do, and even more so when that passion revolves (pun fully intended!!!) around ambigrams! Recently I met a fellow ambigrammist online, Mark Hunter, who is the creative mind behind the most sophisticated ambigram generator on the internet. We exchanged several emails, spoke on the phone, & I asked if I could interview him to get an in-depth look at the ambigram generator and the idea behind it. And now, for the interview…
Nikita Prokhorov: I'm here with Mark Hunter, the author of the ambigram generator, which is said to be the first true ambigram generator on the Internet. Mark, why don't we start with a brief background, just so our readers know who you are. Tell us a little about yourself, so we know where you're coming from.
Mark Hunter: Sure thing, Nikita. Well, I tend to get a little bored by traditional corporate America, especially if I don't have a creative outlet, so I'm always looking for new and interesting opportunities. I've started a few companies, and they always seem to be in far-out niche markets, where there is usually little (or no) competition... and then I try to grow the space. Most recently in 1999, just as the flat-screen revolution was beginning, I wrote a software package to calibrate video for home theater, and grew that company to over $1M in sales until the company was acquired a couple of years ago by a big corporation that brought the technology to Best Buy and Circuit City where you can still use it today.
After moving on from the home theater video calibration niche, I decided to set my sights on the ambigram space.
NP: How did you first become trapped in the world of ambigrams?
MH: (laughing) Doesn't it always start with reading "Angels and Demons"? After reading the book in the year 2000, I made a nice ambigram of my first and last name, and decided to have it done as an ambigram tattoo. I actually thought that getting an ambigram tattoo was an original idea, and back then, it very well might have been! After evaluating that idea for a while and deciding on a body location, I realized that the fingers are actually one of the most easily rotated parts of the body. Realizing that I'd probably have to turn to a life of crime if I got my fingers tattooed, I decided that it would actually be much cooler to have my ambigram laser-carved into a man's ring. It cost me quite a bit to have the ring custom-made out of solid Gold, but the jeweler said that the soft metal would be the only thing that would work for his laser-carving machine.
NP: Oh, so, your first ambigram ended up on a ring?
MH: Right. I only realized that there could be a market for this when all of my friends told me how cool the ring was, and how great it would be for the couples/engagement market. I started creating ambigrams of some couples I knew, and they were blown away by how cool it would be to have a ring with those designs.
Of course, the technique of taking days to hand-draw each ambigram and having it custom carved into solid Gold wasn't exactly scalable. (laughing)
NP: So, how did the idea for FlipScript come about, and was it a solo or joint effort between you & another person (or people)?
MH: Well, I started writing the code in the summer of 2007 after leaving the home theater industry, but it wasn't even close to where FlipScript is today. It was just an experiment originally. I just wanted to see if I could write a software system to create really good ambigrams automatically.
I realized that I needed an expert ambigram partner to take it to the next level, and so I contacted all of the big names in the ambigram space: John Langdon, Tiffany Harvey, Martijn Slegers, Mark Palmer, and others. I'm sure I'm forgetting a few. Of the people I contacted, one didn't think the ambigram generator would work. One didn't quite understand how it was supposed to work. And one was concerned of what such a device would do to the hand-drawn ambigram space, and wasn't sure he wanted the tool to exist at all. Only Mark Palmer from WowTattoos said, "Let's Do It!". So, we did.
NP: So, who was involved with the development of the ambigram generator for Flipscript?
MH: Well, I built the database schema, and wrote the code for the database builder as well as the ambigram generator. As I mentioned, I had some of the core code written before even writing to the ambigram artists. Mark Palmer created the ambigram designs in a format that we agreed to on a trip I made out to L.A. to visit him. Mark's brother Ryan helped a lot in making everything run smoothly, and in getting the designs into the database correctly. So, it was really the three of us.
By the way, it's not actually the FlipScript ambigram generator. Mark Palmer and I actually formed a corporation called Glyphusion, Inc. which licenses the technology. Companies can license the ambigram generator to create custom designs for their products and services, and FlipScript just happens to be one of those licensees.
NP: There are only two or three other ambigram generators in existence. How does your version compare to them?
MH: Actually, I was only aware of one: the ambi-matic from ambigram.com, written in 1995. In fact, one of the things I did was to rewrite the ambi-matic with a much nicer user interface and without the old frames when I purchased the domain Ambigram.Com from the author of the ambi-matic (Post-note: that page is here: http://www.ambigram.com/matic ). However, the ambi-matic script was never even close to what I had in mind for the ambigram generator.
I don't think that there is any real competition for the ambigram generator, nor do I think there will be for many years. Between the database, the generator, the supporting applications and the glyphs, there is a total of about 6 person-years of effort invested in the ambigram generator, and it would be a huge amount of work to duplicate. In fact, I'm not sure it will ever be duplicated.
NP: What is the advantage of using an ambigram generator to create an ambigram? Consequently, what is the disadvantage, and how do hand-drawn ambigrams compare to generated ones?
MH: One of the things we set out to do with this technology was to basically replicate the exact steps that a human would go through in creating an ambigram. We didn't want to just have a few graphics that were simple letter inversions and line them up side by side. Most people would agree that such a technique creates a really, really poor ambigram.
In contrast, the ambigram generator actually works a lot like a person would in sitting down to make an ambigram: it evaluates a plan, draws the ambigram stroke-by-stroke as a vector design, inverts the ambigram frequently as it draws (drawing upside-down about half of the time), makes evaluations as to what letters combine best with other letters and would never, ever try to match an "m" to an "i" or an "x" to an "o"! Unlike that other tool that I won't mention. It combines multiple letters together where it makes sense, and the technology is actually smart enough to draw any ambigram that currently exists. In practice, it can't actually do that because it doesn't have all of the data for every ambigram that exists, but the technology does support it. It draws just about exactly like a human would draw, but about 1000 times faster.
In fact, there is no limit to how "good" the ambigram generator can draw a design except for the data in the database. It can create ambigrams every bit as sophisticated as the very best human drawn designs, because it uses the same techniques that a human would, and uses a human artist's designs as the data. However, it will take some time to teach it the full extent of all complex letter transformations.
NP: So, are you saying that the generator is not complete?
MH: Exactly. In fact, I'm not sure it will ever be totally complete. We have a goal of having two "core" fonts in the generator initially: One more masculine and one more feminine. We have thousands of glyphs and strokes in the masculine font, and are about to begin the development of the feminine font.
One fairly aggressive idea I had was to organize the ambigram artists and give them an outlet for their works by allowing them to upload their designs to the database to be used on the growing list of products that can be personalized, and then give them a nice percentage of the profits of anything sold with their design. Kind of like the Cafe Press of the ambigram space, but with better margins for the artists.
NP: How did you know where to even start with the generator?
MH: That's a good question. Actually, getting started was rather tricky. We needed to know what we were going to focus on first, and we agreed that names were the most popular thing to turn into ambigrams . So, I downloaded the US Census Data list of the 1200 most popular males first names and the 1200 most popular female first names, and made a tool that ran on 3 computers for 4 days basically creating all 1.4 million name combinations as unmanifested ambigrams. From there, we knew what glyphs we would need in the database, and approximately what kind of success rate we were going to be getting get when we had them all. In fact, the test calculations were only off by 3% from our actual measured success rate with the live generator, so the prototype was pretty solid.
After we released an early version of the ambigram generator, an interesting thing happened. When people were actually using the generator, we were able to collect statistics about what designs were not able to be created, and that would create a list of the glyphs that were preventing the solutions from completing. In other words, we were finding out "live" what glyphs people needed... that didn't exist. I started calling it the "Most Requested Glyphs List". These were the glyphs that people were asking for... without even realizing it.
So, we were able to move away from the theoretical US Census Data into real-world data that the ambigram generator was automatically creating for us! Obviously, the ambigrams that people are ACTUALLY trying to make is the most real-world data that we could possibly ask for! Plus, the users were creating designs that are automatically cached, so the system was also getting faster over time as more and more designs were able to be pulled from the cache. Stated differently, the ambigram generator actually gets better... and faster... the more it is used. There aren't many things you can say THAT about!
NP: Do you still design any ambigrams from scratch? What is your personal approach when starting to develop an ambigram?
MH: I have done a few, but lately, my time has been completely consumed with building the generator and the web sites. I wish I had more time to draw more, but my value-add to this project is really in the software development area. My last ambigram was probably the FlipScript logo a couple of months ago.
NP: Finally…What makes ambigrams so unique that people are drawn to them?
MH: Well, if you look at nature, symmetry is all around us, from snowflakes to leaves. There is something very fundamentally attractive about symmetry to humans, and we are not used to our words having such symmetry. It's really surprising to people when they can read a word (or two words) from different orientations, especially a really well done ambigram that is very legible from every angle. Mostly, I just think that people think they're cool!
Thank you for a great interview, Mark! Hope that everyone can learn as much from your answers as I did. To find out more about FlipScript, please visit Mark's site (a link can be found under the "Contributors" section on the right hand side.)