Neuro | The De-objectifier

Last semester Boyd Branch offered a class called the Theatre of Science that was aimed at exploring how we represent science in various modes expression. Boyd especially wanted to call attention to the complexity of addressing issues about how todays research science might be applied in future consumable products. As a part of this process his class helped to craft two potential performance scenarios based on our discussion, readings, and findings. One of these was Neuro, the bar of the future. Take a cue from today’s obsession with mixology (also called bartending), we aimed to imagine a future where the drinks your ordered weren’t just booze filled fun-times, but something a little more insipidly inspiring. What if you could order a drink that made you a better person? What if you could order a drink that helped you erase your human frailties? Are you too greedy, have specialty cocktail of neuro-chemicals and vitamins to help make you generous. Too loving or giving, have something to toughen you up a little so you’re not so easily taken advantage of.


With this imagined bar of the future in mind, we also wanted to consider what kind of diagnostic systems might need to be in place in order to help customers decide what drink might be right for them. Out of my conversations with Boyd we came up with a station called the De-Objectifier. The goal of the De-Objectifier is to help patrons see what kind of involuntary systems are at play at any given moment in their bodies. The focus of this station is heart rate and it’s relationship to arousal states in the subject. While it’s easy to claim that one is impartial and objective at all times, monitoring one’s physiology might suggest otherwise. Here the purpose of the station is to show patrons how their own internal systems make being objective harder than it may initially seem. A subject is asked to wear a heart monitor. The data from the heart monitor is used to a calibrate a program to establish a resting heart rate and an arousal threshold for the individual. The subject is then asked to view photographs of various models. As the subject’s heart rate increases beyond the set threshold the clothing on the model becomes increasingly transparent. At the same time an admonishing message is displayed in front of the subject. The goal is to maintain a low level of arousal and to by extension to master one physiological aspect linked to objectivity. 


So how does the De-objectifier work?! The De-objectifier is built on a combination of tools and code that work together to create the experience for the user. The heart monitor itself is built from a pulse sensor and an Arduino Uno. (If you’re interested in making your own heart rate monitor look here.) The original developers of this product made a very simple processing sketch that allows you to visualize the heart rate data passed out of the Uno. While I am slowly learning how to program in Processing it is certainly not an environment where I’m at my best. In order to work in an programming space that allowed me to code faster I decided that I needed a way to pass the data out of the Processing sketch to another program. Open Sound Control is a messaging protocol that’s being used more and more often in theatrical contexts, and it seemed like this project might be a perfect time to learn a little bit more about OSC. To pass data over OSC I amended the heart rate processing sketch and used the Processing OSC Library written by Andreas Schlegel to broadcast the data to another application. 


Ultimately, I settled on using Isadora. While I started in MaxMSP, I realized that for the deadlines that I needed to meet I was just going to be able to program faster in Isadora than in Max. This was a hard choice, especially as MaxMSP is quickly growing on me in terms of my affection for a visual programming language. I also like the idea of using Max because I’d like the De-objectifier to be able to stand on its own without any other software and I think that Max would be the right choice for developing a standalone app. That said, the realities of my deadlines for deliverables meant that Isadora was the right choice. 
My Isadora patch includes three scenes. The first scene runs as a pre-show state. Here an motion graphic filled movie plays on a loop as an advertisement to potential customers. The second scene is for tool calibration. Here the operator can monitor the pulse sensor input from the arduino and set the baseline and threshold levels for playback. Finally there’s a scene that includes the various models. The model scene has an on-off toggle that allows the operator to enter this mode with the heart rate data not changing the opacity levels of any images. Once the switch is set to the on position the data from the heart rate sensor is allowed to have a real-time effect on the opacity of the topmost layer in the scene.

Each installation also has an accompanying infomercial like trailer and video vignettes that provide individuals with feedback about their performance. Here Boyd described the aesthetic style for these videos as a start-up with almost too much money. It’s paying your brother-in law who wanted to learn Premiere Pro to make the videos. It’s a look that’s infomercial snake-oil slick. 




Reactions from Participants – General Comments / Observations

  • Couples at the De-Objectifier were some of the best participants to observe. Frequently one would begin the process, and at some point become embarrassed during the experience. Interestingly, the person wearing the heart rate monitor often exhibited few visible signs of anxiety. The direct user was often fixated on the screen wearing a gaze of concentration and disconnection. The non-sensored partner would often attempt to goad the participant by using phrases like “oh, that’s what you like huh?” or ” you better not be looking at him / her.” The direct user would often not visible respond to these cues, instead focusing on changing their heart rate. Couples nearly always convinced their partner to also engage in the experience, almost in a “you try it, I dare you” kind of way.
  • Groups of friends were also equally interesting. In these situations one person would start the experience and a friend would approach and ask about what was happening. A response that I frequently heard from participants to the question “what are you doing?” was “Finding out I’m a bad person.” It didn’t surprise users that their heart rate was changed by the images presented to them, it did surprise many of them to see how long it took to return to a resting heart rate as the experience went on.
  • By in large participants had the fastest return to resting rate times for the images with admonishing messages about sex. Participants took the longest to recover to resting rates when exposed to admonishing messages about race. Here participants were likely to offer excuses for their inability to return to resting rate by saying things like “I think I just like this guy’s picture better.”
  • Families were also very interesting to watch. Mothers were the most likely family member to go first with the experience, and were the most patient when being goaded by family members. Fathers were the least likely to participate in the actual experience.
  • Generally participants were surprised to see that actual heart rate data was being reported. Many thought that data was being manipulated by the operator.

Tools Used

Heart Rate – Pulse Sensor and Arduino Uno

Programming for Arduino – Arduino

Program to Read Serial data – Processing
Message Protocol – Open Sound Control
OSC Processing Library – Andreas Schlegel OSC Library for Processing 
Programming Initial Tests – MaxMSP
Programming and Playback- Isadora
Video Editing – Adobe After Effects
Image Editing – Adobe Photoshop
Documentation – iPhone 4S, Canon 7D, Zoom H4n
Editing Documentation – Adobe Premiere, Adobe After Effects