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Shining a Digital Light on Chinese Shadow Play

Did you know in China, shadow play and other traditional art forms are disappearing from popular culture as modern forms of entertainment take over—threatening the country’s historical identity? Three university students have demonstrated how Intel technology can help keep these art forms alive by merging them with the latest innovations.

The audience was captivated

It’s not the kind of thing one usually sees at a student technology contest: Shadow puppets moving fluidly against a white screen as New Age music plays.

But the real showstopper came at the end when the screen came down, revealing that robots, not humans, were controlling the puppets and the music.

Inspired by folk art on the streets of Xi’an, China, three university students combined Intel technology with traditional Chinese art to create a robotically controlled shadow play. The production landed Wang Hoaran, Liu Xin, and Zhu Men top honors at the 2010 Intel Cup Undergraduate Electronic Design Contest in Shanghai.

Shadow play is an ancient form of storytelling that uses flat, articulated puppets to create the impression of moving humans and objects. The cut-outs are held between a light source and a translucent screen. It’s an important cultural symbol of China’s prosperous Tang and Yuan dynasties, and the student project blended the old with the new in order to preserve this unique part of China’s past for a new generation. In recent decades, such art forms have faded in Chinese culture with influence of international pop culture.

“For modern Chinese, shadow play is a symbol of splendid Chinese history and cultural heritage that has been designated worthy of protection,” Wang says. “We asked ourselves ‘Can we inherit and protect the art of shadow play and its cultural heritage through innovative application of embedded technology?’”

Employing technology powered by Intel® Atom™ processors, they designed mechanical arms to move each puppet according to a series of action instructions, in addition to controlling the accompanying music and light source, thus creating an entirely new and exciting approach to this historical art form.  

Eventually, Wang says, the technology could be used to create life-sized, electromechanically controlled marionettes equipped with speech recognition and artificial intelligence technology that could potentially be used at cultural exhibitions—enhancing the learning experience for those who are new to the art form.

Wang Hoaran, Liu Xin and Zhu Men work on mechanical arm movement

Intel® Atom™ Processor

Wang Hoaran, Liu Xin, and Zhu Men used an Intel® Atom™ processor to control their puppets. The Intel® Atom™ processor powers a variety of devices such as tablets, smartphones, netbooks, hybrids, and consumer electronics.

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