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Alter Ego


Alter Ego in Wonderful at Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2005

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It is a common experience that we are aware of another self, or even several selves, which are generally unconscious, but rise to the surface in various contexts. It is possible to observe in oneself different facets of personality in different situations, with different parts of the self emerging at different times. Using a computer to create a semi-autonomous replica of the person sitting in front of it, Alter Ego invites its audience to question the various facets of their own identity. 


In this screen-based installation individual audience members interact with what appears to be their own mirror image but which is, in fact, an avatar onto which the face of the user is mapped in real time. 


In the installation a stool with a curved black screen behind it is placed in front of what appears to be a mirror hanging on a wall. The individual user is invited to sit still on the stool with a blank expression on his or her face for some seconds. The computer captures images of the face via a webcam located behind the ‘mirror'. Using data gathered from these captured images, our system reorganises a stored 3D model to appear as the face of the user. As the computer is working the user will see an image which forms his or her own ‘reflection’. After about thirty seconds this reflection begins to react to, rather than mirror, the facial expressions of the user. For example: if the person viewed by the camera smiles, the virtual face, or ‘alter ego’, may look surprised or angry, or may smile back. This dialogue continues until the system detects that the face of the individual has moved outside its field of vision, at which time it is reset.

Alter Ego in Locate Me at Kunstraum Bethanian, Berlin, 2010

For the user, Alter Ego introduces a sense of rupture between the observed self and the experienced self. At the same time, it points up the inseparability of human and machine; of conscious actions and affective responses. Alter Ego plays with our expectations, mapping visual and affective information along unexpected pathways in order to draw attention to the subtle relationship between technological development and the transformation of human self-image and identification.

The Alter Ego interface is designed to be automatic and, as far as possible, invisible to create a sense of wonder around the work. The installation does not require conscious intervention from the user (such as button pushing/touch screen etc). Alter Ego has a secondary audience comprised of those people who have already used the work, or who are waiting to use it, and who are discussing their ‘performance’.

Alter Ego was developed with Professor Alf Linney in the Department of Medical Physics at University College London. Originally conceived as an artwork, Alter Ego draws together practical and theoretical concerns from a wide number of discourses, among them psychoanalysis, cognitive science, HCI, and digital game studies. 


By tracking twenty-two points on the face we can fairly reliably distinguish fifteen different facial expressions. These include: smile, laugh, sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust.We have built up extensive databases of spontaneously and consciously made facial expressions. From this research we learnt that subtle differences in meaning and intention which are normally clearly read by the human eye are very difficult to measure mathematically. The Alter Ego head is made up of a series of morph targets. Each target model has been individually sculpted to create a realistic range of expressions.

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