TWO YEARS AGO, AFTER four days of round-the-clock programming, Robert Silvers put the final touches on a powerful chunk of code. Silvers, then a graduate student at MIT's Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., says he literally held his breath the first time he tested his software creation, one that he hoped would successfully make a big image out of many small photographs. It worked, forming a portrait of a friend out of thousands of pictures of wildlife and vegetation. The first person he showed it to, his faculty adviser, looked at the final product and had just one comment: ""Fantastic.''
That has turned out to be a fairly common reaction to Silvers's creations, which he calls photomosaics. Since he developed the software and turned it into his master's thesis, Silvers has made about 50 photomosaics for himself, friends and a handful of famous people, including George Lucas, Al Gore and Penn Jillette. With his Media Lab adviser, Michael Hawley, he's compiled 30 of them in a new coffee-table book called ""Photomosaics'' (82 pages. Henry Holt. $19.95). Included are the cover he created for Life magazine's 60th-anniversary issue--Marilyn Monroe, composed of hundreds of old Life covers--and two commissions from Lucas of Darth Vader and Yoda, using stills from the ""Star Wars'' trilogy.
The photomosaics in the book are arresting and irresistible. Some are cheeky visual puns, like Silvers's homage to Georges Seurat's pointillist masterpiece ""Un Dimanche A la Grande Jatte,'' and the portrait of Bill Gates made from the world's currencies. Others contain simple surprises like a snapshot of Arthur C. Clarke--the science-fiction writer who popularized the notion of putting satellites into geosynchronous orbit--embedded in a mosaic of the Earth. Still others approach art, like the ghostly portrait of Abraham Lincoln, composed with poetic economy from Civil War photos. ""It's an esthetic riddle,'' Michael Naumann, Silvers's publisher, says of the medium. ""It asks two questions simultaneously: what is it, and how is it done?''
Al Gore asked exactly that--how do you do it?--when he visited the Media Lab in May 1996 and buttonholed Silvers for an answer. As he explained to the inquisitive veep, the process starts by digitalizing the larger image and selecting the smaller photos that will become the tiles from his database of 100,000 stock photographs or from a special collection like the Library of Congress's war pics. Silvers then essentially flips the switch. His custom software selects the best composite by trying--after a rough sort for color or tone--each photograph in every possible position. Once the tiles fall into place, the original disappears; Silvers stresses that the final image is not superimposed on top of but evoked from the tiles. ""You could create my Marilyn photomosaic if you lined up the right issues of Life magazine in the same pattern,'' he notes. Silvers could do it all by hand, but he says working with digital images on his $20,000 Silicon Graphics workstation makes the process go much, much faster--trial and error at hyperspeed. Besides, he says, ""I've designed the program to see the way I do.''
That means the computer ""sees'' and selects photographs based on more than color and brightness. The photomosaic software uses algorithms to also discern shapes within pictures. These shapes help construct the bigger image. For example, a glint in Abe's left eye, on closer inspection, turns out to be the whitish head of a Civil War soldier. This method allows Silvers to use fewer photographs, a technique that also distinguishes photomosaics from mere pixelling--what your television does with electronic dots to construct an image of Jerry Seinfeld. It also helps the composite image float free of its blocky tiles, which, he says, is ""one of [its] magical qualities.''
Its moneymaking potential seems to be another. Operating out of a sunny office 10 minutes from MIT, Silvers, who recently hired four employees, has turned a grad-school idea into a company called Runaway Technology (www.photomosaic .com), a start-up that will take in close to a million dollars this year. In addition, sales of his book are expected to reach $6 million, merchandising deals are in full swing and he's got at least five commissions lined up--not bad business at upwards of $75,000 a pop. It doesn't hurt that Silvers possesses some marketing know-how: the 29-year-old entrepreneur hasn't yet given Al Gore the portrait he commissioned. It's finished, but Silvers is waiting for just the right time to deliver it for ""maximum publicity value.'' He's also looking ahead to the Photomosaic franchise: Silvers envisions the day in the not-so-distant future when you'll be able to have a photomosaic of your family done on the spot at a mall kiosk.
Despite all his business plans, Silvers, who shoots black-and-white photos in his free time, insists he's an artist at heart. He's not quite to ready to label his luminous technical marvels Art with a capital A--""Time will tell,'' he demurs--but he hopes his works at least transcend their novelty value. ""It's a rich enough medium to express emotional content,'' he says. Silvers thinks a mini version of his software might someday make it to CompUSA for everyone to have fun with. But for now, he says, ""I'm enjoying being the only one.''