ASCII Art: Art with characters and special characters

The English term "ASCII Art" stands for "ASCII art", i.e. a type of art that uses the ASCII character set on the computer. Nowadays other character sets as well as different fonts and formatting are used for this. In order to use standardized text and character combinations that can be displayed on as many systems as possible, Unicode is also used. But what is behind it all? What is ASCII Art, how did it come about and what forms of it still exist today? In this post we get to the bottom of it.

Sir Apfelot - The name of this blog as ASCII art rotated in perspective. Besides this complex example, there are also very simple strings that use only a few or one line.
Sir Apfelot - The name of this blog as ASCII art rotated in perspective. Besides this complex example, there are also very simple strings that use only a few or one line.

What does "ASCII" actually mean?

The abbreviation ASCII stands for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange". It is a system for encoding character sets that was first recognized as a standard in 1963. This standard was revised in the 1960s and again in 1986. Since then, however, it has been used worldwide to define a total of 128 characters, 95 of which are printable. In addition to upper and lower case letters of the Latin alphabet, this also includes the numbers 0 to 9 as well as some punctuation marks and special characters. More modern standards such as Unicode and ISO 8859 are backward compatible with ASCII.

The History of ASCII Art

In fact, the history of ASCII art predates computers and their writing. Because before that there was already the so-called typewriter art, which was realized with the eponymous typewriters or with teleprinters. On typewriters, characters could be used in the fixed line and character grid to use individual letters, digits and characters for imaging. In addition, several characters could be applied in one place and the paper moved to further define transitions, shading and contrast. A subspecies of typewriter art is pattern typing for the artistic elaboration of documents.

The beginnings of ASCII art go back to the 1960s, when computer terminals were not yet capable of displaying high-resolution graphics. Its users began to use the limited resources of character representation to create images composed of ASCII characters. The relatively new standard was used early on for abstract and stylized images. This form of art was widely used in Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and other early online forums. In the 1980s, ASCII art became even more complex and varied with the use of ANSI colors and extended character sets. In addition, it increasingly replaced the art of typing.

Here is a converted photo of the top of my MacBook Pro, converted to ASCII art (Photo: Sir Apfelot).
Here is a converted photo of the top of my MacBook Pro, converted to ASCII art (Photo: Sir Apfelot).

Today there are even more options for text customization thanks to different fonts, formatting, font sizes and a wide variety of apps. However, these hardly have anything to do with the original ASCII art. In addition, numerous ASCII art generators are offered online, thanks to which you no longer have to go to the trouble of converting images into character strings yourself. 

Only the simplest shapes, such as those on the bulletin boards and early Internet forums, need to be either created manually or adjusted again after automatic conversion to align lines, etc.—plus, nowadays, there is no need. Because even 4K graphics and videos are transmitted quickly.

Examples of ASCII art

From the simple, stylized representation of people, animals, objects and concepts using character strings on a few lines to extensive images in large grids, much is possible. I have not managed to include ASCII art in text form here in the blog, which could be displayed equally well in all browsers and on all devices. That's why I want you on the Wikipedia page on the subject refer. There are plenty of examples that look good, including a picture of Garfield, a Usenet signature of a sleeping cat, and ASCII schematics.

Kaomojis: Japanese emoticons made from other characters

As already described above, the ASCII standard offers only 128 characters, of which 95 are printable and can therefore be used for ASCII art. Among them are Latin characters, numbers and a few special characters. All in all, a comparatively limited construction kit for the design of images - especially if you have to limit yourself to a few or even one line. 

The Japanese font (which is included in today's Unicode standard, among other things) offers significantly more different characters, punctuation marks and special characters, and thus also more extensive possibilities for image design on a single line. With this the so-called Kaomojis resulted and result. A kaomoji can be seen as an emoticon native to Japan (๑˃̵ᴗ˂̵)و 

More on this: Kaomojis - History of Japanese Emoticons

Animations with ASCII Art: Star Wars in the terminal

As with any other form of image, ASCII Art also creates the illusion of movement when slightly adjusted individual graphics are lined up next to one another. There are certainly numerous examples of this. The best-known example of ASCII animation is probably the implementation of "STAR WARS Episode IV" in the Mac Port, in the Linux terminal or in the Windows command line. 

To do this, a server (telnet towel.blinkenlights.nl) that supplies the individual images for displaying the film in the form of ASCII images. Away macOS 10.13 High Sierra (2017), the Apple Mac no longer supports Telnet natively. As I read when researching the topic, Telnet support can be retrofitted using third-party software.

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