How can photographs be turned into a painting even a professional artist might admire for a full palet of color and swirling brush strokes? Alien Skin in Raleigh offers new software designed to help turn amateur shooters into a Monet or Picasso – with a few strokes of the keyboard and a mouse. WRALTechWire talks with the mastermind behind the new program in an exclusive interview.

Tongue planted firmly in cheek at times, Chief Technology Officer Terence Tay talks about the release of Snap Art 4 – and how the release is part of Alien Skin’s goal to transform photography – simply and quickly.

“Exposure time? F­stops? High ISO noise? Pincushion distortions? Depth of field? Chromatic aberrations? Moire effects? Why is it so hard to capture beautiful pictures?

“At Alien Skin, our goal is to make it easier for you to capture beautiful pictures and turn them into works of art. This has been the driving force behind our photography product line. Exposure lets you explore creative photo effects inspired of film. Bokeh allows you to manipulate depth of field and create tilt ­shift lens effects after the photo is shot. Blow Up enhances the resolution of images so that they can be printed at high resolution.

“And finally, Snap Art turns your photos into beautiful works of art.”

WRALTechWire asked Tay a series of questions about Alien Skin, his role, the target audience for the new product, and the frustrations as well as the rewards of developing the newest software. Just a year ago, Alien Skin released software that allowed users to regain the “soup” effects of a chemical darkroom to enhance photographs. With Snap Art 4, the 20-year-old company is providing photographers – professionals, students, amateurs – tools to make snapshots true works of art.

Here’s a bit of background about the company, by the way, from co-founder Jeff Butterworth, about “the funky company name:”

“George Browning and I dropped out of grad school at UNC Chapel Hill in 1993 to commercialize some texture creation code we developed on the side. It was inspired by the work of Karl Sims in his 1991 paper “Artificial Evolution for Computer Graphics” and by the texture explorer in Kai’s Power Tools. The early images the software created often looked like lumpy slimy alien skin, thus the name.”

Tay plays to the “Alien” name, as you will read.

“Your planet …”

“I arrived in Raleigh 6 years ago. I am one of the few Alien Skin staff members that actually has an alien registration number issued by the U.S. government,” Tay said in response to a series of questions about himself.

“That’s so they can track us as we co­mingle with the general population. Every now and then, I check in with [the company] to let them know where I am. Don’t worry. I’m not
dangerous. I just want to write awesome photography software. And I figured what better place to do that than at a company where I can blend in.

“My technical background is in computer vision and image processing. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Image processing is what Adobe’s Photoshop, Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture do, which I’m sure most photographers are familiar with. It’s the art of pushing pixels around, for example, to make a picture brighter, to add more color and to boost the contrast of a picture.

“That’s all nice and good, but it also involves lots of work for the photographer.

“Things get interesting when we add intelligence into these image processing techniques, and that’s where the computer vision part comes in. The purpose of computer vision is to teach computers to understand what it sees, which is something you humans, even your younglings, do so easily.

“A good example of a computer vision technique is face detection, which is a common feature found in many cameras. By pairing computer vision with image processing, I hope to create
powerful computer software that can be made to do amazing things.

“Like most of us at Alien Skin, I am a photography enthusiast. Your planet offers such beautiful scenery but your camera technology is still so far away from being able to capture what you see.”

The Q&A with Tay follows:

  • The images you show at the website are striking – how many man hours and lines of programming are involved in this project? Has it been a big focus for you, and if so over how much time?

Thanks, I’m glad that you like the example images. These example images are a major focus with every product release. They are the best way to demonstrate to everyone what each
product does. And Snap Art does so much with so many natural media types like oil paint, watercolor, crayon and pencil sketch.

You may then be surprised to learn that it didn’t take us much time to create those examples at all. Remember that the key to all Alien Skin products, including Snap Art, is the combination of
intelligence with image processing. This allows you to make a few simple creative choices and let Snap Art take care of the rest. Watch the tutorial videos on our website to see how quickly
you too can learn to turn your photos into works of art.

  • What makes this version different? What was the driving customer demand to create this product?

The goal of Snap Art is to re­create the aesthetic quality of hand­made art. Even though there are other software that also claim to do this, they often require that you put in huge amounts of
manual labor. Typically, you have to use a pen tablet and painstakingly apply one brushstroke at a time to create your painting.

Snap Art takes a completely different approach. Instead of requiring that you brush your photo one stroke at a time, Snap Art uses sophisticated techniques to expertly apply thousands of
brush strokes for you. You control the software with simple and intuitive creative controls, and it does the rest of the work. Flip a switch and Snap Art turns your oil paint into a watercolor painting or a pencil sketch or some other natural media type. It’s that ease and creative freedom that motivated us to make the very first version of Snap Art.

In this latest version, we added a visual preset browser that shows what each preset looks like when applied to an image. This lets you easily navigate the dozens of carefully crafted presets to find the right look you want for each photo.

The visual preset browser was part of a bigger re­design of the software to make it easier for you to create your artwork. For example, you can also tag your favorite presets so that you can
quickly find your favorite looks. You can also share the presets that you create across multiple computers using cloud services like Dropbox. And for Mac users, Snap Art 4 also adds support for high­-resolution Retina screens on the MacBook Pro.

  • Who is the target audience? Is Alien Skin going to be creating a new Monet or a Picasso?

Computer software will not create a Monet or a Picasso, but neither did paint brushes and paper create Monet or Picasso. Snap Art’s goal is to put tools in the hands of creative people and let them express themselves through a new medium.

  • Are there commercial (i.e. big business) applications for this or is it targeting primarily artists and private photographers?

Many art forms, including photography and traditional art, have been the domain of independent artists rather than big businesses.

  • Do people want to “frame” their own work or perhaps sell it as a work of art? This certainly could lead to creation of some striking, unique Flickr collections and photo albums.

At the Alien Skin office, we have many framed prints and canvas wraps hanging on our walls that were made with Snap Art. So framing and selling your work is certainly a possibility for anyone who wants to do it. We also have many people sharing their Snap Art creations through social media, like Flickr and Facebook too.

Stop by our office if you’d like to see the framed prints and canvas wraps I mentioned.

We promise ­ no abductions… at least not while you’re here.

  • Since it integrates with Adobe and Apple, did this require any licensing or agreements with those firms? Since it can be used as a standalone application, does that broaden its appeal?

Alien Skin works with Adobe and Apple through their developer programs. The goal is to have our products fit seamlessly into a customer’s workflow, regardless of whether you’re a Photoshop, Lightroom or an Aperture user. With Snap Art 4, we’ve also added standalone support, which allows you to run Snap Art without any host programs. So yes, we hope that this will let us reach a wider audience.

  • What’s the greatest satisfaction you draw from this project?

Seeing our customers use our software, of course! They share their work with us through social media and it’s always fascinating to see what they come up with. They are the Monets and the Picassos.

  • On the other hand, what has been the greatest obstacle to overcome?

The hardest thing to do would probably be, as you humans say, sticking a fork in it and calling it done.

Customers are frequently sending us ideas for new features and improvements. We also have very passionate beta testers who have given us a lot of good feedback. But there is not
enough time to do everything, so we have to be very selective in what we add into a release.

That means that some improvements had to be postponed. On the bright side, we keep track of every idea and we are already building a list of what we want to do for the next release