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Conversation Piece


Interactive audio installation. Size variable, approx. 8m x 8m.

Conversation Piece is an interactive artwork designed to explore the boundaries between virtual and real world experience. It is an intelligent room that uses speech recognition and synthesis software, a dialogue management system, microphone arrays and directional sound sources to conduct disembodied dialogues with two separate users at one time. 


In the installation two small sculptures are displayed on exhibition plinths. People entering the space are automatically tracked using webcams positioned overhead. When someone moves past one of the sculptures the disembodied voice of ‘Heather’ tries to catch his or her attention by saying ‘Hello’, or ‘Excuse me’. As an individual approaches one of the sculptures ‘Heather’ will then try to engage that person in conversation. Using keywords to interpret what is said in reply, she will try to pursue a dialogue with the user that can be heard only at a particular location in the space.

Conversation Piece raises questions such as: “what if computers could convincingly perform human emotions?” and “can humans engage in meaningful social interactions with machines?” In the installation the sophisticated technologies used to emulate human communication processes are concealed to enable an apparently seamless convergence of the real and the virtual. For each user the illusion of meaningful social exchange is mediated by the extent to which he or she projects personality or emotional content into the synthesized voice, and how much he or she chooses to engage with the projected personality. On one level the work investigates the extent to which any human interaction is concerned with projection and imagination.

Conversation Piece was made in consultation with Professor Alf Linney at University College London and with the generous support of Mike Lincoln, Centre for Speech Technology Research, University of Edinburgh. It was made possible by a production grant from the Wellcome Trust.

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