Remember ASCII art?

Well, maybe not. But like other old-school elements of primitive computing, it had its day, right next to electronic bulletin boards, games run off of floppy disks, and pioneering programming languages like BASIC and Fortran.

In the early days of computing, it wasn't easy to create nice-looking displays. Over a period of years, we went from monochrome monitors to basic color palettes that were amazing when they first came out, but antiquated by today's standards. Cyan became a primary color, and instead of a boring white or green screen, you got angry fruit salad.

So in those days, there was quite a scene for ASCII art, an art form that used those old MS-DOS command line systems to generate then-breathtaking displays of color. Rather than try to work in pixels, ASCII artists used sets of characters found on the conventional computer keyboard — letters, numbers, slashes and backslashes, braces and curly braces, asterisks, dollar signs and other special characters. Packing these into rows and columns, you could compile some pretty amazing types of pictures. Lots of those who accomplished the most with ASCII art were also visual artists and sound artists off-line, such as this guy – others were mathematicians who also spun off sophisticated line images with graphic calculators.

The Modern Interface

Then Windows came along, and so did the 256-color display. Pretty soon, digital photography was all the rage, and ASCII art was largely forgotten.

Nowadays, a lot of this type of visual presentation is confined to embedded display windows in a webpage or an executable program. You'll have a page built with modern HTML, CSS, etc., looking modern as all get out, and inside that contained box you'll have that same jumble of text lines that you used to see when you turned on your computer.

What's amazing is what people have been able to do with ASCII art in the last few years. As computers became smaller, quicker and able to store more data, it became possible to create all sorts of programs that would actually generate ASCII art automatically from a pixel-based digital image.

Remember, in the old days, you had to go in and “hand code” an ASCII art image. You had to program the computers to spit out each character one at a time, which took quite a bit of effort.

By contrast, today's ASCII art generators can take nearly any visual image and run it through a sophisticated algorithm, and the computer will assign characters that match the contours of the picture.

You can see all sorts of these programs on the Web — for example, this one from Glass Giant will take your uploaded picture and spit it out in ASCII. Then you have merchandise turned out using some of these modern algorithms — for example, this T-shirt featuring Albert Einstein rendered in ASCII. Sites like this one at Super Symbols show the intersection of ASCII art with things like emoticons, gaming design and modern Flash animation. ASCII art can also be useful as an introduction to display programming. This TechCrunch page also shows how games based on ASCII character art are still compelling to a modern audience.

Blast From the Past

Although so much new stuff is now possible with ASCII art, some creators are still hearkening back to the good old days of monochrome displays, disk drives, landline phones and AOL.

Patrick Gillespie runs a site called Patorjk.com — on his generator, you type in a word or phrase, and select one of dozens of fonts from a drop-down box. The result gets written in a big text box taking up a lot of the bottom half of the screen. There are fonts that simply super-size characters into drawn lines, and others, like “o8” that make characters into visual creations using only certain base ASCII characters, in this case, the number eight and the lowercase letter “o.”

“When I developed TAAG, it was to create an online application that would allow someone to generate text using any of the old AOL ASCII Art alphabets that were created in the late '90s,” Gillespie told Techopedia. “I created a standard format for the fonts, fixed holes that existed (some of the alphabets were incomplete), and fixed character issues. After I did this I learned about the other font movements (such as FIGlet and TheDraw's fonts) and incorporated them into my application as well. Along the way I also ended up creating a few of my own fonts as well and put those in too.”

As for the design philosophy, Gillespie said, it’s based on making this kind of art accessible online.

“I just wanted something that was easy to use. I didn't want a user to have to type and then press a button. I wanted to type my text and see it be generated as I typed,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie, who characterizes himself as a “big fan” of yesterday’s ASCII art, has also put together a very accessible archive of different ASCII creations on the site.

“The thing I remember most is looking through the art that came with ‘AOL progs’ back in the late '90s.” Gillespie said. “There was a certain artistry to it… many of the pieces were complex and obviously took a lot of time to create. Because the old-school AOL ASCII art scene formed around the font Ariel, it started disappearing from the Internet when AOL stopped being a dominant force (around 2001). Rarely do I hear people talk about the art from this scene anymore.”

Just like Gillespie, quite a few people are working on using new technologies like complex algorithm development, modern responsive websites, and new media to promote some of those old “retro” technologies that can still be relevant in our contemporary digital world. So look for classics like ASCII art to keep popping up on the fringes of the new Web.