Vicarious @ Ends of Audience

Ends of Audience


Recently I, Joe Marshall, Sarah Martindale and Stuart Reeves descended upon Queen Mary University of London to give a presentation at their “Ends of Audience” event. This was interesting in itself, not just because it was one of the first public academic presentations to discuss the vicarious software, but because we actually did the presentation interactively using vicarious. Eschewing powerpoint and keynote as being far too stable, tested and reliable, we elected to use our own early-days rendering tool: Vicarious, and to feed it with live biodata, not from me or Sarah who were speaking but instead from Joe who was standing in the corner of the stage – for reasons that will become clear shortly.

Joe was wired up with a good range of sensors: an electrocardiogram (ECG), Skin Conductance (GSR/EDA), Electroencephalography (EEG) and Facial Electromyography (EMG) – though this last was rather hampered by the fact that it was the height of summer, incredibly hot and the sticky electrodes kept falling off his face. All this data was streamed live to our server (a beast we had to bring along for the purpose) along with a live video pointed at poor Joe’s face. Nestled in amongst all that were the slides we’d made for the talk (actually made in powerpoint and exported, but you can’t have everything). Slides could be advanced at the touch of a button, as long as one stayed away from the other button that made the whole system crash, and a pretty nice talk about our history of biosensor use, the development of vicarious and “The Experient Live” commenced.

At the end of the talk came the reason for Joe being wired up. We played a game called “Clap or Slap.” Essentially Joe hid behind a medical screen, Stuart joined him there then on cue from me Stuart would either simply clap his hands together, or would slap Joe across the face (note that the camera was removed for this bit). The audience then had to guess by way of holding up signs laminated for the purpose, by looking at just the biodata whether it had been a “clap” or a “slap.” It proved a fun end to the talk and seemed to inspire plenty of interest during the proceeding coffee break. I will say however that turning up with that much kit to give a talk isn’t something I’d want to do every time. It is also worth noting that this presentation had as yet my favourite title of any work I have presented: “Exposing your still beating heart.”

Note: No Joes were seriously harmed in this production.


National Cowardliness Rankings @ London Dungeon


Interesting day today at London Dungeon. Thrill laboratory was engaged to explore the differing reactions of several nationalities to fear stimuli. Largely an attempt to engage with the forthcoming Olympic excitement in London, it proved to be a lovely reinforcement of expected national stereotypes. Who would have guessed that the French would be the most vividly terrified? Or that the Italians would be the most vocally dramatic! Similarly, could anyone have guessed that the Germans would be teutonically unmoved by the terrifying experience?

Of course it was all done on a very “lite” (and frankly rather woolly) basis and certainly couldn’t be considered scientifically sound or statistically significant, with just a single representative from each country. That said it was a very agreeable evening. BVP, EDA and EMG was the order of the day today, and the subjects were exposed to four stimuli: A Gladstone bag full of surgical equipment, boody rags and photographs of Jack the Ripper’s victims to induce unease; a “boo fright” in the darkness for fright; some rats under a closh for the phobia type unease; and a bucket full of rotting meat and maggots for disgust. Certainly unpleasant and a lot more dramatic than the stimuli we were able to make use of in the torture your parents experience at Mayfest earlier in the month.

Here if you’re interested is the league table of national cowardliness:

  1. France
  2. Italy
  3. Brazil
  4. England
  5. Scotland
  6. Sweden
  7. India
  8. Hungary
  9. USA
  10. Germany
Do bear in mind of course that we only tested these ten nations. As to where others might fall – who can say. Why not head down to the dungeon and see?

The experience was actually run for journalists as a PR piece for London dungeon. Here are links to a couple of the articles written about the event:

And here is the official press video, featuring our own Brendan Walker:

In technical terms, it served to show us that we really need to be able to make multiple screen instances of the Vicarious renderer – something that has now been remedied, saving me the need to take two large computers to run similar “2-up” type experiments in the future. Otherwise though all seemed to go roughly according to plan. The screen looked pretty good and the participants reactions were much as we might have expected. Except for the rats. Everybody loved the rats. They were very cute though so perhaps that was inevitable…

Photo Credit: Mikael Buck

Parental Torture @ Mayfest 2012

Today, at the university of nottingham’s annual Mayfest open day, the vicarious system had a second simultaneous excursion, this time within a wider Horizon stand and aimed at exposing families to the existence and affectibility of biodata. Parents, nominated by their generous offspring to receive torture, were “wired up” with a selection of biomonitoring equipment – in this case sensors for Blood Volume Pulse (BVP), Electrodermal Activity (EDA) and Electroencephalography (EEG). We used a Vilistus 8 for the BVP, a Nexus 10 for the EDA and an Emotiv for the EEG. We also filmed the “victim” using an HD camera, and displayed this as part of the visualisation. There was certainly no shortage of kit on offer – and plenty of interesting variety in inputs for vicarious to wrangle. While the parent was being prepared, the child or children were given a menu of “tortures” to which they could subject their parents. This would begin with a starter to demonstrate the effects of a known stimulus: Choices being “The Tickle Stick”, “Cuddle The Big Moose”, “Off With Their Head” and “Captain Underpants”. These would be proceeded by plunging one’s hand into a mystery box,  the “main course” of the torture, designed to eleicit one of four responses pleasure, pain, surprise or disgust.

As was perhaps inevitable, the disgust box (in fact containing a large bowl of rather revolting cold and starchy spaghetti), proved vastly popular, with the pain box (icy water) coming in second. Demonstrating that “surprise” should probably have been called “fright” (putting your hand in triggered a bursting balloon and a personal alarm) this box was rarely selected, so too it appears few children except for those very young ones have any interest in letting their parents away with “pleasure” (a particularly soft cuddly bear) when things like disgust and pain are available. All in all a good time was had by all – well most anyway: some of the beating meeted out with the foam sword and inflatable scythe during “off with their head” were frankly savage.

Tug-o-matic vs Suck-o-matic @ Mayfest 2012


The mind controlled game Tug-o-matic took on an unusual persona today at the University of Nottingham’s annual Mayfest: A chance for local people and families to see the kinds of things that go on in the university and to experience research and science face to face. In this instance the tug-o-matic front end was applied to two different interface paradigms, the familar electroencephalography-based  “brain-controlled” version and a new “breath-controlled” version based on the gas mask respirators now familiar to any regular reader of this blog.

Because of the modular nature of the vicarious architecture which underlies this work, changing to breath control was simply a matter of starting a different “collector” program to get data from a different source. This has served as an excellent example of the practical flexibility of the system.

The eponymous Suck-o-matic, as appears to be its inevitable moniker proved a roaring success if the volume of child spit currently clogging up the respirators is anything to go by. In this instance only the respirator canisters and not the masks themselves were used. This was to make the game more child friendly since the masks are not only intimidating but also largely too big to fit children.

In the event, I was actually unable to attend as I was elsewhere on campus running a related experience also as part of mayfest, and the event was staffed by my colleagues Michel Valster (pictured) and Alex Pinkney.

The Experiment Live @ alt.chi – “The Machine in the Ghost”

Just been giving my talk at alt.chi in the “physical love” session. This seems rather odd for a paper that’s essentially about fear, distress, anger and dead people and manages to mention both aliens and vampires…

I’m talking about our experience of broadcasting biodata and in particular ‘the experiment live’ from the mayhem horror film festival. I’ll be covering areas like how people react to biodata on screen – the differences between fake and real biodata, the fictional precedent for biomontoring as part of narrative (only allowed if you’re a marine apparently), and whether or not one can reliably “act” biodata.

This is a bit of an odd talk because I’ll be covering the technical problems we had on the night as well as the fabulous concept that it actually was. I’ll post up a link to the paper itself once they go online in the ACM digital library.

Anyway the presentation is available here

The talk seemed to go down well – lots of positive tweets about my references to Buffy and Aliens. Thanks to everyone who came.

The Experiment Live @ CHI 2012 Liveness Workshop

Today has been the first real external academic discussion of the work we did  with “the experiment live.” We published a work-in-progress paper to one of CHI’s workshops. The workshop is on ‘exploring CHI’s relationship with liveness” something apparently relevant since the experiment was indeed live. Interesting that most of the talks have been about live events/performances but the workshop activity is about “capturing” the live experience. This was instigated by giving us some cameras and sending us to CHI’s now legendary Geordie Party at a pub in downtown Austin, TX, giving us a frankly astonishing amount of free drink then asking us to video the thing we though would help to characterise the liveness of the event.

I suspect the result of this is likely to be a lot of shaky video of the early acts, which we will be editing together in the workshop. he party itself was pretty good, good bands, good people, tasty booze and a nice sense of camaraderie. Certainly that was there this morning as we all filtered into the workshop nursing a variety of states of hangover.

Anyway, the experiment talk seemed to go down fairly well, which is nice. Lots of other interesting stuff including Xth sense bio sensors (microphones to pick up muscle noise and turn it into music. That was Marco Donnarumma from U.Edinburgh’s sound tech lab and I’d very much like to get my hands on some of those sensors. Loads of people here from culture lab with an interesting mix of experience design and theory approaches.

Here’s a link to the paper.