Conversation Piece 2008
Conversation Piece is an interactive computer installation that mimics social relations with human users. In the installation a disembodied synthesised voice tries to engage individual audience members in dialogue. Each interaction is focused around a small sculpture displayed on an exhibition plinth. People entering the space are automatically tracked using webcams positioned overhead. When someone moves past one of the sculptures the disembodied voice of ‘Heather’ tries to catch his or her attention by saying ‘Hello’, or ‘Excuse me’. As an individual approaches one of the sculptures ‘Heather’ will try to engage that person in conversation. Using keywords to interpret what is said in reply, she will pursue a dialogue with the user that can be heard only at a particular location in the space. The transparency of the interface in this work is important because it gives the illusion that ‘Heather’ really is listening and responding to the user. Conversation Piece raises questions such as: ‘what if computers could convincingly perform human emotions?’ and ‘can humans engage in meaningful social interactions with machines?’ By emulating, but not quite replicating human social interaction, Conversation Piece exposes some of the mechanics of human to human communication. For each user the illusion of meaningful social exchange is mediated by the extent to which he or she projects personality or emotional content into the synthesised voice, and how much he or she chooses to engage with the imagined character of ‘Heather’.