Incubating Worlds

Incubating Worlds2018-10-30T21:47:50+00:00

-This is a unlinked work in progress page created for the Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping Our Genetic Futures open call-

Overview of the project

‘Incubating Worlds’ is a computer game installation that utilizes the live growth of fungi and bacteria to generate virtual worlds that evolve in real time. This works as follows: Petri dishes with randomly contaminated black colored agar are placed upside down on a consumer flatbed scanner. Every hour a high-resolution scan of the growing microscopic organisms is made and translated on the spot by software into a virtual game terrain. As a result, an empty game environment will literally ‘grow’ into a unique landscape within the timespan of roughly 14 days. Visitors can explore these virtual environments and experience the growth of fungi and bacteria from a whole different perspective.

Flatbed scanner with 5 upside-down Petri-dishes and one upright Petri-dish showing colony growth

Currently I prepare the agar in a non-sterile environment, resulting in random contamination. Until now this has been exciting to me; each world was a surprise on its own, with an amazing diversity of shapes and colors.

Example of a scan (left) and resulting terrain (right)

For the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping Our Genetic Futures exhibit I would like to give the visitors of the exhibit the opportunity to explore virtual worlds based on the live growth of genetically modified fungi and/or bacteria. Since I do not have such cultures myself (or would otherwise probably not be allowed to ship them), I might need help from the organization of the exhibit and/or cooperating scientists. This is a new direction for me, but one that I would be excited to explore.

An exciting byproduct of my imaging method (capturing the microorganisms using a high-resolution flatbed scanner) are quite stunning time-lapse movies of the growing microorganisms. I propose to also exhibit these to give a highly detailed view on the microorganisms themselves.

High-resolution time lapse of the growing microorganisms

‘Incubating Worlds’ is part of my PhD research on the topic of computer games that involve live non-human organisms. I am curious if  1) computer games can be less predictable when incorporating real living non-human organisms, 2) how this synergy could influence the design process and 3) how it could benefit the involved non-human organism and human player. In the case of ‘Incubating Worlds’, I find it fascinating that macro imagery of fungi and bacteria often exhibits patterns similar to mountain ranges seen on satellite imagery. Instead of simulating such patterns (as often happens in computer game design) I use the natural growth patterns directly.

Bacillus subtilis displaying similar fractal patterns as mountain ranges seen on satellite imagery

A proof of concept of this installation was presented at the EvoMUSART conference (4th International Conference on Computational Intelligence in Music, Sound, Art and Design). Currently there is a working single-user prototype.    


The ideal setup consists of a modern all-in-one computer, a flatbed scanner shielded by a perspex glass cover, a gamepad and an extra screen showing time-lapses of previously grown worlds. Instead of an all-in-one computer also a desktop computer or laptop with external screen can be used. Furthermore a table and chair are needed. Needs for shipping depend on availability of these at the exhibit location.

Proposed setup



For the exhibit I would prefer to use genetically modified fungi and/or bacteria. Since I do not have access to such cultures myself (or otherwise will not be allowed to travel with them) I would preferably need help from the organization of the exhibit or cooperating scientists. The organisms grow on self-made agar (agar, coffee, marmite and sugar) which is easily made. Every 14 days the agar needs to be refreshed and contaminated so a new world can grow. As an alternative, I could facilitate the live scanning from my home location and upload the data directly to the computer at the exhibit. It is my preference though that the whole procedure happens at the exhibit location so the visitors can witness the whole procedure. The flatbed scanner should be contained for the safety of the visitors.

Additional visuals

Example of a growing world

Example 2


Example 3