Busy dad and artist Pindar Van Arman was looking for a way to take care of his kids and still have time to make art when, in the process, he developed software that would eventually help patients at Cook Children’s Medical Center create their own works.

His software powers a robot, known both as Spikelangelo and Spike, that assists patients in making self-portraits from the comfort of their hospital rooms — and without making a mess. 

“My first idea was just to make something that could create the backgrounds so that … instead of spending eight hours on a painting, I can make a robot paint the background, get the kids to sleep and spend one hour finishing a painting,” he said.

For the first few years, Van Arman said, the robot wasn’t that different from a printer. The user could send the robot commands, and it would print accordingly.

But he kept tinkering away, adding new algorithms every six months or so. Around 2010, a significant change happened when he added a camera.

“It’s the most interesting thing happening,” he said. “It’s looking at what it’s doing and reflecting, and using that to decide what to do next.”

Dr. Scott Perry, head of neurosciences at Cook Children’s Health Care System, is an art lover who had purchased a painting from Van Arman.

Perry remembers getting a note from the artist’s mailing list sometime around 2015 about a project where people could log in, take control of the robot in Van Arman’s studio and paint. 

The doctor thought that the technology would be perfect for a project he was spearheading for Epilepsy Awareness Month, so he found the artist on Twitter and sent a note. 

“I was trying to come up with a way that multiple people could work on something at the same time,” Perry said. “Because some of those kids are hooked up to an EEG, not all of them can leave their rooms and participate.” 

To Perry’s surprise, Van Arman said that instead of using his robot, he would donate a new one to the hospital with support from ST Robotics.

The pair started working together on getting a machine set up in the hospital, but it took a few years to get it up and running.

“In my mind, it was a lot easier than it turned out to be. You know: Guy wants to donate robot. He hooks the robot up. It seemed really simple to me,” Perry said. “It’s not that simple.”

The pair had to work through the safety concerns, security safeguards and regulations of setting up the robot in a healthcare facility. Later on, they also had to contend with the effects of the pandemic.

Today, people who walk through the hallway are excited to see Spikelangelo painting, and many are curious about how the robot works. 

Spike runs on more than a dozen algorithms, which Van Arman describes as a combination of imagination, logic and reflection.

All of the algorithms carry out computational functions, but some are more advanced than others. For example, one of the simple algorithms might measure the contrast of a painting and then add it in where it was previously missing.

Others are capable of generating new content, or using what could also be called imagination.

The ability to reflect is a product of the robot’s most advanced algorithm, which takes pictures of its progress, examines the photos and then uses that analysis to decide what to do next. That decision could be something creative, like adding in a new idea, or something more technical, like adjusting the contrast. 

At the hospital, Spike also has help from a human director. Patients send input to the robot with each of their swipes on a designated tablet.

Spikelangelo isn’t a replacement for human art therapists, but rather a supplement that they can use to serve more people or engage current patients in new ways, Perry said. Although the impetus for the collaboration was related to epilepsy, he sees Spike as a potential resource for all patients.

“It can be therapeutic for some kids just to get them out of their shell, talking and enjoying doing something,” he said. “You don’t have to be the best artist in the world and can still come out with a really good piece.”

He sees this as a tool that can help occupational therapists as well as art therapists.

“One of the reasons I like the rehab units is because … it is occupational therapy to be able to pick a color and get it into these small areas of the painting,” he said. “It’s not sitting here working on how to use a fork and a knife, which gets boring after a while.”

For kids who have grown up using tablets, it’s a familiar technology.

“A lot of kids are really into the robot,” Perry said. “That’s where we get all of these great ideas.”

Spike cleans its own paintbrush but still can’t detect when paint has dried.

The team learned by trial and error that the paint colors should all be on one side of the color wheel, otherwise the colors will become a muddled brown when blues and oranges or greens and reds get mixed together.

One patient asked if they could create different brush sizes so that they could add more variation into their strokes.

Several kids have asked if they can upgrade the program, so that patients can zoom in and out while working on a portrait.

“Every time we do it, they have a new idea,” Perry said.

Cook Children’s Medical Center patient Jayla Richard uses a tablet to create a self-portrait with help from Spikelangelo during her hospital stay. (Marcheta Fornoff | Fort Worth Report)

Jayla Richard, a high school junior from Arlington, had the opportunity to paint with Spike near the end of her stay at the hospital. She doesn’t consider herself an artist, but enjoys making crafts at home.

“It’s really cool,” she said as she added deeper hues to her self-portrait.

“If I had a pencil, it’d be great. I’d be able to do everything,” she added, giving the team more feedback.

At Cook Children’s, Perry said, one of the team’s goals is to create moments of magic.

“This is one of them. This is something that’s completely different and takes you out of why you’re here,” he continued. “It allows you to do something special.” 

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on
Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...