Friday, April 24, 2009


Tonight at SwissNex we went to see a presentation of an interactive robot/computer called QB1. Essentially a flat panel monitor perched on a neck growing from a rectangle, it was encased in black cloth and looked a bit like the visitors in their gray and black and generally colorless clothing, who stood around drinking cheap but good wine, eating the very tasty seared ahi on twisted bamboo stalks, rare sirloin wrapped around fragrant goat cheese, garlic hummus, and other cheeses of soft and hard, advanced and more basic varieties, yammering, eyeballing each other, and enjoying the electronic music being made on 3 MacBook Pro laptops by skinny young guys in tshirts.

QB1's screen swiveled back and forth toward faces or gesticulating hands. On the screen was video of the people watching it. Rectangles appeared around faces as they were recognized as such. We later learned that it has the ability actually recognize individuals. At various times icons and images would appear, start and stop buttons. It looked at times like a typical control panel, not unlike iTunes or a very simple video game. By motioning, two people seemed to play a a sort Pong of type game with each other.

QB1 mostly looked away from us, at another group of people, though it wasn't clear why it was fixating on them -- they were not any better looking or better dressed or more interesting than we were. This would robot was supposed to be about interaction, but its most convincing reaction was disinterest. I felt shunned, irritated, as clearly, the people around us were. They were no less bewildered at being scorned.

When one of the designers talked to us about QB1 it was clear that they had tried to do too many things: make a personalized object, make a computer interface for playing games, listening to MP3s, doing.... stuff you do on a computer. They were trying to make a product and also something new and had managed to really do nothing at all.

The capper for me was watching the faces of the people attempting to interact with QB1. Their faces were dead. They looked as if they were looking at a computer screen. They were not looking at something alive. They had that look that most people have looking in a mirror. Unless we're really narcisstic, truly mentally ill, we don't look into mirrors at ourselves as we do at other people or animals. Our faces come alive when we look at living things which might respond, because we are hopeful, curious, desirous, fearful.

Sadly, this construction wasn't really anything. It was a computer, but less than most computers. In the end, this art/technology show was about the wine and the snacks, and ultimately interaction, just not with a machine.

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