"Babble" (Froslie, 2006)
Interview/Article by Jonah Brucker-Cohen
In the technologically advancing world of consumer electronics and toys, it seems that manufacturers are attempting to pack more features into devices without any regard for their emotional and nostalgic appeal. Playfully examining the toys and games from his childhood, artist Pete Froslie attempts to bring out the human side to digital and analog toys by giving them the ability to sense and play off their users input to create new forms of interaction and intuition. From adding a nervous side to "Speak and Spell" games with his "Babble" project to making a novel self-aware with "Anxiety Book," Froslie's projects not only speak to the characteristics of their intended users, but also carry their own sense of bewilderment and charm. Gizmodo caught up with Froslie to discuss his work and exactly why our devices should become less plastic and more intuitive like us.
Images and Interview after the jump.
Name: Pete Froslie
Education: BFA: University of Nevada Reno, MFA: Massachusetts College of Art,
Affiliation: Independent Artist
GIZMODO: "Babble" consists of three Mattel "Speak and Spell/Math/Read" toys from the 1980s that are augmented with sensors to detect visitors presence. Once detected, the toys speak out while their speech processes become combined and abrasive. What was your intention with this piece? Do you think current trends to make consumer electronic devices more self-aware of their environments and users is a good or bad thing?
PF: Learning toys/devices appear to have enjoyed a steady increase in production since the Speak and Spell was initially sold in 1978. At the least, this is what I observed working at Toys R US some years ago during high school. Such toys promise shortcuts to some of the base skills determined necessary in Western civilization. The Speak and Spell also introduced the first single chip voice synthesizer, the TI TMC0280, into the consumer electronics market. It seems to me, born the same year of the release, that this toy was contributing to a new model of learning that included a lesson plan for a future of responsive devices.
The intent of "Speak and Spell/Math/Read" is to draw out the speech utility designed into the learning toys so that they lose their anticipated function. Additionally, a newer voice synthesizer that calls viewers close to the work moderates the new interactive properties. The resulting combination of the speech processes is actually a competition for current running through each toy's speech chip. Essentially, the toys participate in a conversation consisting of a mixture between the electronic language they desire and the vocal signifiers we are able to recognize. This effect implies the fragility of the devices we choose to inscribe with our cues for self-awareness. The toys continue to display this sense, but also they seem to have become distracted in a conversation amongst themselves - forgetting to properly respond to their human counter-parts.
It is impossible to determine the true value of our consumer devices as either completely good or bad. It seems evident that current trends toward self-aware design are indications of a need to be freed from the restrictions technologies have already placed over us. It is also implied that labor-saving augmentations will open natural territory for happy humans. I feel that often when a new electronic device is made self-aware it temporarily excuses people from small discontents in their life, but that these gestures are quickly absorbed and the confines of such a civilization are merely reestablished in another fashion. I recall that before the ship there were no shipwrecks, and I fear the 'Golem' as our ships are becoming aware of themselves in a dance toward our entwined fate.
"Trace" (Froslie, 2006)
GIZMODO: "Trace" combines a motorized Etch-A-Sketch drawing toy with an Atari 2600 playing "Pac-Man" so that the motors draw Pac-Man's movements through the game on the screen. In effect, the Etch-A-Sketch provides a perfect tracing of the player's path while playing and when Pac-Man dies, the Etch-A-Sketch flips itself over and shakes itself clean. Why did you decide to connect the mechanism of an Etch-A-Sketch to a video game? What do you think physical output of "virtual" systems adds to the overall user experience?
PF: I was studying a book about the patterns required to master Pac-Man and a bit of an old obsession returned to my activities. As a young kid my father used to take me to his officers' club on our military base where we would play Pac-man and pool. For hours I would think about the movement needed in Pac-Man relative to the motion of the pool balls. Those nights I often continued this logic at home with my Etch-A-Sketch. Studying the Pac-Man pattern book reminded me of this as an adult and I immediately began to consider the physical manifestation of our movements through virtual space.
"Trace"- video (Froslie, 2006)
Connecting the mechanisms of the two toys together made sense. The Etch-A-Sketch is driven by a manual plotter system while the Atari joystick obeys these rules of motion with ergonomic ease. There are many relationships between the drawing toy and video games - several indicate a possible sense of evolution occurring from one type into the other. For instance, it is fascinating that the Etch-A-Sketch establishes a repetitive goal-oriented task in a toy. Children attempt to master their drawing skill only long enough to desire further perfection, then they are spellbound with the 'magic' capacity of the toy to start-over. This capability feels very similar to the game play of Pac-Man. I frankly get energized seeing the two playing together.
A user experiences logical connections between their commitments in virtual space and a sense of physical time when the two are cross-referenced. In this case, after a moment of, 'oh cool, the Etch-A-Sketch is tracing Pac-Man', people tend to quickly display surprise at the actual manifestation of the sprite's movement. I too was surprised at the immediate complexity found in such an outwardly simple virtual system. Ultimately, I think that a 'post-production' society requires synaptic strategies breathing in and out of both spaces. Such a requirement should allow users the proper opportunity to determine their desired relationships to the devices integrating with them in a mixed reality.
"Hank and Harriet" (Froslie, 2005)
GIZMODO: "Hank and Harriet" is a pair of wheeled robots controlled with Basic Stamp microcontrollers, one holding a dry erase marker and the other an eraser. As the bots move around the floor, they are programmed to avoid each other and the walls while they perform a "dry-erase dance" when approaching each other head on. The result is a chaotic creation on the floor surface. How do you envision the future of autonomous systems and why did you choose this particular interaction? Do you think this project was successful in its ultimate output?
PF: I frequently 'cannibalize' my work moving electronic innards from one piece to the next. As my knowledge of the subject expands so do the needs of the embedded technologies - I like to think about a hermit crab looking for a new home. Regarding this logic, I consider many simple design strategies that will allow for better, smoother communication during transfer from old to new work. Of course, my budget considerations weigh into this as well! Considering this subtle experience as an artist working with hobbyist electronic material, it appears that there is a larger concern for the design of our governing autonomous systems. Many of our 'smart' devices are really not that smart and their communication with one another is nothing to text home about. Adding a human user, or sometimes moderator, naturally compounds the calculated anticipation of an autonomous system. As many classic literary visions indicate, we may eventually tire of the maintenance our new independent buddies require and seek refuge in a numb, labor-less envelope. The future will clearly be less black and white, but I do like to consider the possible interactions between our autonomous system and itself.
"Hank and Harriet"- video (Froslie, 2005)
With "Hank and Harriet" two autonomous robots are granted the slight illusion of self-aware personality. I chose this interaction simply to translate the robots' movement through embedded process onto a physical surface. My hope was that the mess created as one pulled a marker and the other went about erasing it would instill each robot with an individual identity. The dry-erase surface is really a display implying a less utopian view of our clean computers at work. Also, the robots I chose (ones that avoid obstacles) are fairly basic introductory exercises for students learning to design our future autonomous system. I liked this aspect as the two went about avoiding the walls occasionally recognizing one another. Ultimately, I felt that the project accomplished its goal and enticed some viewers with a little spectacle as well.
"Anxiety Book" (Froslie, 2004)
GIZMODO: The "Anxiety Book" is a motorized book that remains open while scanning its surroundings for people nearby. When approached, the book quickly shuts its cover and remains closed for a certain duration. When left alone, the book re-opens and continues the cycle. This project aims to integrate emotional responses into inanimate objects. Do you think it succeeds in its goals? What types of reactions do you get from people experiencing this project?
PF: As I built the piece it sat on my desk and gradually began to feel more and more as if it were participating with me in late-night witness. I believe that in this regard it very successfully integrated an emotional response. Working with the book for some time I would eventually feel distressed as I reloaded it with different timing procedures - as if I were invading its right to privacy. Now, of course, these reactions were a bit projected through my intention to play with emotional inanimate objects, as well as my natural desire for the studio companionship I was missing at the time; regardless, I found that some social cues we assign to emotion are not always significantly difficult to translate into inanimate objects. This certainly got me thinking about systems of objects and looking into work from technologists researching sociable machines.
"Anxiety Book"- video (Froslie, 2004)
Placing the "Anxiety Book" into the gallery was pretty fun. First of all, it had one plug to power and then it did its thing! Following that, it was fairly consistently 'harassed'. People appear to respond to the book more genuinely than they often do with other interactive projects I have done. I assume there must be an aspect of the illusory personality it displays contributing to such reaction. The book has also had a difficult life in accordance with these types of interactions. At one point, when it was showing at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, it suffered numerous invasions, as gallery visitors felt obligated to pry the book open and find the 'little' machine in its anxiety blanket.
" Etch-A-Sketch Machine" (Froslie, 2005)
GIZMODO: "Etch-A-Sketch Machine" combines ten of the toys with two microcontrollers that activate servo motors to draw and scrub the surfaces over time. As the surface is removed, the mechanism underneath is revealed and a "humming" sound is heard. Why did you choose Etch-A-Sketches for this project and what were you happy with the outcome in the end? Do you see a future of self-controlled consumer toys that require minimal input from their users?
PF: As I stated earlier, the Etch-A-Sketch has held a place of fascination for me since childhood. Considering some of the toy's functions, I often find it easy to see indications of a generation of toys to come - specifically, automated plastic toys and video-game screen culture. I had, as a child who loved to draw, a particular relationship to its ability to automate, augment and change the purpose of my hand in the activity. The challenge was frequently less about the drawing skill and more about the precision and patience with the toy. I typically attempted to scrub the surface off to find the hidden 'real' mechanism. Honestly, I don't remember ever having the actual patience required to finish that task. The choice to use the Etch-A-Sketches in an artwork paralleled my discovery of the microprocessor. Learning that technology was the first time I began to see the mechanism that had been driving the computer I was so familiar with. I formed relationships between the toy and computer with regard to the ephemeral screen, internal mechanisms and general prosthetic capabilities. In final form, I was pleased with the subtlety of the Etch-A-Sketches' action when performing the commands from the code and the audience anticipation of the mechanism beneath, though several times people have assumed that I created that aspect of the device as well.
"Etch-A-Sketch Machine"- video (Froslie, 2005)
As for a future of self-controlled consumer toys, I sense a considerable amount of attention being given to our notions of 'play'. Often, and rightly so, the critical attention is guided into the spaces of video games and reflections upon older similar models. Much of my personal experience of 'play' resides in that wonderful childhood space that consisted of: child imagines world, child fabricates world through static toy, and the late eighties when playing began to show signs of automation. With "Etch-A-Sketch Machine", in a time when many toys come preloaded with sound effects from a child's favorite TV show, I find myself ready to believe the future of automated play is already here. I want the Etch-A-Sketch to try and keep up by retrofitting itself with some required technologies today and also to stand in as a decisive point itself where older toys began to automate.
"It's Not That Easy Being Green" (Froslie, 2006)
GIZMODO: "It's Not That Easy Being Green" consists of a stuffed Kermit the Frog doll loaded with an animatronic circuit controlled by an Atari 2600 joystick. Visitors wear headphones, and use the controller to move Kermit while simultaneously listening to Kermit sing "We're Alive" (http://www.froslie.com/Pete_WEBSITE/kermit/audio/werealive.mov). How did this project originate and what do you hope the relationship between Kermit and the song will leave with the viewer of this piece?
PF:Well, the project basically arrived some time after I had read an article about frogs growing five or more legs. I wanted to do something with Kermit for some time and I began to see a parallel between those influenced mutations and the mutations I was considering in toys. I felt that Kermit growing a fifth leg himself as a consumer stuffed-animal was kind of cute and simultaneously gross. I had never defaced an icon in my work so readily before this. I saw it as an opportunity to make a correlative between that logic and ecological commentary. A very important aspect of Kermit is his voice. I concluded that to properly communicate, 'This is the Kermit you know', he should have a vocal presence. He is famous for singing "We're Alive". A contextual shift to our present ecology, via the words of the song, was immediate. I wanted to keep that aspect of the idea simple. The addition of the Atari joystick served as a technological umbilical cord providing access to new automatic controls of the stuffed animal - something he grew along with his fifth leg. The action provided was a quivering, jittery impression of Kermit moving around and testing his new leg. I hoped for the audience to intimately get caught up with the 'Kermit of today' listening to his song and considering his new controls to be cute. With further consideration given later to the environmental issue, viewers may begin to develop new relationships between the cute, glossy surface of our consumer selves and the grotesque underbelly dictating an uncertain future.
GIZMODO:What projects are you currently working on? How are they similar or different than your past projects?
PF: I am currently focusing on work to be completed for my MFA thesis in Boston this spring (2008). The work predominately features a range of historical characters recast into a new hyper-fictive experience. There is considerable attention given to John Wilkes Booth as the central figure in the majority of the artworks. For instance, I have been rewriting the code (story line) for the interactive fiction game 'Adventure!' to include Booth as the lead antagonist. Currently, much of the work I have been doing with automation and toys has begun to occupy a new location. Rather than consumer hacks via the highjacking of toys the new work has the tendency to develop playful and chaotic visual textures encrusting political allusions. This often grows from the playroom where 'floor games' are enacted. Many of the ideas remain the same though they have evolved closer to the distorted future previous works alluded. The role of the prosthetic has also gained control over a good deal of my motivation. For example, I have been designing an apparatus that will allow users the experience of smell in association with some of these new physical works. It is intended to be somewhat programmable as it may respond to either historical or fictional locations regarding a user's proximity to specific artworks. One objective of this newest work is to consider a gap between automatisms in our historical perspectives and certain fictional realities we are currently experiencing.