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  • Alter Ego: Computer Reflections of Human Emotions

    Alexa W rightCARTE

    University of [email protected]

    Eugenie ShinkleDepartment of Media Art and Design

    University of [email protected]

    Alf LinneyCentre for Auditory ResearchUniversity College London

    [email protected]

    ABSTRACTIn this paper we briefly review and discuss the ideas of self,emotion, and facial expression, and describe how a digital artwork in the form of an interactive installation entitled AlterEgo was created to publicly explore these concepts. This workmakes use of a variety of strands of modern technology: facialfeature tracking, automatic facial measurements from livevideo, facial expression detection, and realistic avatar andexpression modeling in 3D. In essence, the image of anautonomous alter ego of the user is created as a mirrorreflection in real time. We further consider the place of AlterEgo in relation to contemporary human subjectivity, digitalgame theory, and its possible applications in research into thehuman psyche.

    Categories and Subject DescriptorsD.4.7 Organization and Design Interactive systemsH.5.2 User Interfaces Input devices and strategiesJ.5 ARTS AND HUMANITIES Fine Art

    General TermsMeasurement, Performance, Design, Experimentation, HumanFactors, Theory.

    KeywordsEmotion, Affect, Human-Computer Interaction, FacialExpression Analysis and Synthesis, Subjectivity


    This paper will look at the collaborative digital art work ofAlexa Wright and Alf Linney, focusing specifically on AlterEgo, a screen based installation in which users interact withwhat appears to be their own mirror image. Originallyconceived as an artwork, Alter Ego draws together practical andtheoretical concerns from a wide number of discourses, amongthem psychoanalysis, cognitive science, HCI, and digital game

    studies. Alter Ego has largely been developed within thedepartment of Medical Physics at University College London.In this context, the work has been characterised as a usefulresearch tool with which to study disorders of the self in whichnormal social interaction is disrupted. From a theoreticalperspective, Alter Ego can be seen to mobilize and expand ontwo distinct models of subjective interaction with thecomputer. One of these models is based in Lacanianpsychoanalysis, the other in cognitive neuroscience. Thispaper will examine these two models and the dialogue thatexists between them.

    Alter Ego emerges at a time when postmodern notions of thehuman/computer relationship are shifting emphasis. Seminaltexts of the eighties, such as Donna Haraways CyborgManifesto and William Gibsons Neuromancer, explored someof the ways in which the modernist dualism of organismversus machine might be broken down. Despite the insight ofthese and other arguments, much early cybertheory tended tointerpret the cyborg myth in a technologically deterministway. Understanding self, body, and machine as ontologicallydistinct entities, cybertheorists argued for the replacement ofthe meat body with a techno-body that was free from materialconcerns such as aging, illness, and death. The fantasy of thedownloaded mind was cyber-discourse at its most paranoid,and its most utopic. This theatrical denial of the body i sepitomized by the performance artist Stelarc, whosecatchphrase the body is obsolete sums up perfectly theattitude of a generation who were all too keen to overlook theembodied and reflexive relation between subject andtechnology.

    Figure 1 Stranger Within (Alexa Wright 1993)

  • Beneath the strident voice of postmodern technophilia,however, there ran a current of opinion which took a moreholistic view of the relationship between human subjects andtechnology. Since the early 90s Alexa Wright has beeninterested in ideas of cybernetics, but was always an advocatefor the necessity to recognize and to celebrate theirreplacibility of the organism. Early works such as StrangerWithin (Figure 1) investigate the literal, physical and grossabsorption of the machine into the organism. Watchingorthopedic surgery, Wright was interested to think thatcybertheory relates, on some level, to a real and pragmaticbody/machine relationship in which the meat body i ssupported, rather than replaced, by technological implants.

    The cybertheory of the late eighties and early nineties hassince given way to an approach that addresses these real andpragmatic aspects, embracing the affective, embodied, andemotional aspects of the human/computer relationship. Recentresearch in fields like HCI, artificial intelligence, digital gametheory, digital art, and others focuses on these issues, taking arenewed interest in wetware and the role of the sensual bodyin human/computer interactions. AI research, for example, nolonger thinks of artificial intelligence systems asdisembodied, fully functioning simulations of isolated partsof the mind, but as embodied systems that perceive,understand, and interact with their environment according tothe affordances presented by this environment. Therelationship between mind, body, and technology is anintricate and constantly shifting one. Neither of these termscan be teased apart in practice; their interactions arecharacterized by complex physical and psychologicalbehaviours. It is within this context that Alter Ego is situated.


    Human relationships to computers go beyond the simplyinstrumental a notion which can be traced back to one ofcomputings early innovators, Alan Turing. Elizabeth A.Wilson suggests that building computers was not Turingssole fascination; he was equally captivated by the inter-relation of certain mathematical, emotional, social, andengineering puzzles. [27] In other words, he saw the computernot simply as a tool under the control of a human operator, butas a more complex interactive and affective entity.

    In his 1950 paper Computing Machines and Intelligence,Turing first proposed his famous test of the same name.Sidestepping the question can machines think?, Turingargued that a computer could be said to be intelligent if i tcould imitate human responses to a set of questionssuccessfully enough to fool a test subject. In fact, Turing wasless concerned with whether or not machines could pass thetest, than with the philosophical questions it raised. As heremarked: we are not asking whether all digital computerswould do well in the game nor whether the computers atpresent available would do well, but whether there areimaginable computers which would do as well. [27]

    This is a sort of limit exercise a way of thinking through theperfect computer and as such it occupies a very similar

    epistemological terrain to the work under discussion here.With Alter Ego, Alexa Wright and Alf Linney do not askdirectly whether machines can feel, but instead ask questionssuch as: what if computers could convincingly emulatehuman emotions? and can machines engage in meaningfulsocial interactions with humans?

    Figure 2 Face Value installation shot

    Wright & Linneys previous collaborative work, Face Value(Figures 2, 3) addresses the issue of social interaction byproviding a catalyst for exchanges between participants. Thiswork, which references 19th century physiognomic principles,relies on the computers ability to measure the static featuresof the face. In the installation a computer screen displays alife-size image of an average face, derived from sixty differentindividuals. As the user sits in front of this screen, his or herown face appears superimposed over the average face. Theimage of the users face is captured by pushing a button, afterwhich the computer calculates differences between the facialdimensions of the user and those of the average face. Anindividual 'character reading' is printed out based on thesemeasurements.

    Here, the users level of immersion in the technology i slimited. Rather, the focus of the work is on the socialinteraction provoked amongst users as people gather to verifyor deny the characteristics the system has attributed to them.Inevitably if someone smiles, or turns sideways whilstinteracting with Face Value they will receive a distortedreading. This fallibility of the technology has become integralto the work, which is intended to invite people to consider themechanisms they use to read character from one another'sappearance, rather than to assert the validity of anyphysiognomic system. The most significant social exchangeresulting from this piece is not between the user and thecomputer, but between individual participants.

    The human facility for almost instantaneously readingsocially and culturally inscribed information from anotherperson's physical appearance suggests that human charactermay well be genetically linked to physical appearance,although not in the simplistic and formulaic way suggested byreductive systems such as physiognomy. The complexity ofthe task of holistic interpretation (i.e. scientifically measuringa persons character from his or her appearance) remainsbeyond even the most powerful systems of logic. Although i twas designed to set up a discursive environment where the

  • complexity of these interpretive mechanisms could beexplored, Face Value also inadvertently points up the innatefailure of the machine to contextualize and interpretinformation presented to it with the same intuitive flair as ahuman subject. Face Value characterizes the machine as alogician which, despite its formidable computational power,cannot avoid careless discrimination.

    Figure 3 Face Value detail

    As Face Value demonstrates, computers can successfullymeasure individual parts of the face the length of a nose, thewidth of a mouth, and so on. They can also identify particularemotional clues in small movements of the facial muscles.Several hypotheses relating to