Empathy Machines

Aaron Labbé
March 28, 2019
3 min read

On the evening of March 9th 2017, I sat in an auditorium at the Ryerson School of Image Arts as a spectator to one of the most mind blowing presentations I have ever seen. It was by Theo Watson, one of the creative directors at Design I/O (now one of my favourite new media studios). He enchanted us with an hour-long chronicle of his beginnings as an artist and the rise of their studio, and provided us with a detailed behind the scenes look into the production of one of their most spectacular works, Connected Worlds.

“Connected Worlds” by Design I/O

The piece featured a 3000 square foot interactive floor with large walls that, when connected, created an interactive virtual ecosystem in which water could be diverted, animals could be fed and plants could be nourished or destroyed. To top it all off, it featured a spectacular 45 foot waterfall. The project took nearly a year to produce and three months to install, using several tools they had to invent during the process. It was an unbelievable undertaking and an incredible achievement. By the time the presentation had ended, a child-like feeling came over me; I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.

After the studio developed Connected Worlds, they began to receive a long list of commissions from various museums, art galleries and large public events all over the world. The only reason we had the opportunity to even see Theo was because they were in Toronto installing their newest piece, Mimic at the TIFF DigiPlaySpace. Mimic was a peculiar work because it was not like anything else the studio had done before. There was no screen and no visible interface. It was simply a robot arm. But this robot could do something quite incredible: it shared a very organic dialogue with its audience members. It felt as though it had emotions of its own, it felt like it had empathy.

“Mimic” by Design I/O

As audience members walked by the robot, it came alive; moving in an almost dance-like fashion around them, mimicking and responding to the kinesthetic movements of each audience member on an emotional level. If a child approached cautiously, Mimic would slowly and playfully approach them, and if a child approached with force, Mimic would move quickly and abruptly.

After watching several audience members get completely mesmerized by this machine, I gained an entirely new appreciation for creating art through tangible user interfaces. In such a space, we become closer with the interaction, we feel almost interconnected with it and, most importantly, we retain the sensation of our bodies, allowing us to feel the work on a much deeper level. Pieces like Mimic allow audiences to have interactions with a machine that has almost life-like properties, encapsulating audiences in emotions generally unfelt in standard screen-based media.

Beyond Art, it is easy to see what incredible things can be accomplished with empathetic machines. The tangible user interface has opened an entirely new world for designers, storytellers and makers to explore. Boston Dynamics is just one of the many companies who have taken the TUI (tangible user interface) to another level. Back in 2016 they created Atlas, a humanoid robot that interacts with the world through stereo vision and thousands of sensors all over a human-like body. The robot moved and behaved in such a life-like manor that when testing the robot’s durability, members of staff would tell the engineers to not bully the robot by kicking it around and hitting it. In this case, the machine not only had empathy for us, but it evoked those emotions out of us too.

“Atlas” at the Boston Dynamics Lab

In recent years, we have acquired the tools to create machines that can mimic parts of human intelligence and in combination with tangible interfaces like this, we have unlocked a revolutionary opportunity to change the way we experience art and media. It presents this remarkable inter-collaboration with engineers and scientists, enabling us to create stories that live and breathe as entities of their own. Stories with a limitless set of storylines, different with each interaction, and an emotional connection with our audiences that exists not only in our minds but in the physical world as well.

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