Imagine walking into a gallery and seeing these larger-than-life mobiles hanging from the ceiling — they rotate, blink, squawk, and sometimes synchronize with each other, completely without human intervention. You walk among them, blocking their interactions, using a flashlight to attract their attention, wanting to get in on their conversation.
This was Gordon Pask’s COLLOQUY OF MOBILES at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London, part of an exhibition called Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968. Yes, 50 years ago in 1968 — an exploration of machine-to-machine and person-to-machine conversations in an interactive, immersive environment, perhaps the first of its kind. Frequently praised for its originality and influence, Pask’s COLLOQUY is a precursor to practices of contemporary art and design, as well as a prescient vision of our future with machines that may choose to act on their own.
Here at the MFA program in interaction design at CCS, we have launched The COLLOQUY 2018 Project. We are rebuilding a full-scale version of Pask’s COLLOQUY OF MOBILES in celebration of its 50th anniversary in 2018. We have an extraordinary advisory board, including the original curator of Cybernetic Serendipity Jasia Reichardt; Pask’s daughters; the curator of the Pask Archive at the University of Vienna; and other exemplary individuals in media and design. Two MFA IxD studio courses — Internet of Things & Prototyping and Interactive Immersive Experiences — are reviewing descriptions, images, and movies (scroll down) in order to replicate the installation, some 10’ by 12’ in floor area and stretching from floor to ceiling.
To replicate the physical mobiles and their interactions is a fascinating and valuable archeological process; to re-make their operation by reproducing COLLOQUY’s original electro-mechanical computer would be madness. So COLLOQUY will be driven by modern digital software, sensors, and motors. This makes possible the recreation of the dynamic interactions as Pask designed them in 1968, as well as the invitation to students to explore what the newest technologies in 2018 — voice interfaces, motion sensors, facial sentiment analysis, and artificial intelligence — imply for the future of human-machine symbiosis.
Imagine the result — a COLLOQUY 1968 mode that operates like the original, and a COLLOQUY 2018 that explores conversational machines, a condition that is now part of everyday life (at least in the form of speech input and output). The experience of moving among the mobiles of the installation and engaging them via voice, body movements, and facial expressions will offer a rational as well as emotional sense of what it means to live among machines that converse.
The COLLOQUY 2018 Project will change how we feel about going home to voice interfaces such as Siri and Alexa, Cortana and Google Home, and how we experience living among smart machines.