Project 2: Scare Your Computer (with Nick Sanchez)

Scare your computer. Using Arduino with Serial communication to: Processing, Max/MSP with Jitter, or Isadora, incite a fear response from your computer (e.g., Trigger a video of a screaming person when you come into the frame, turn off the lights or play a loud sound).

We began by thinking about the wording of the question: ‘Scare your computer.’ What makes a computer afraid? And what does it look like when a computer is afraid? We speculated that a plausible answer to the second question was that a computer might turn off in fright – in the same way a person might freeze in terror or faint in shock. And finally, we thought that what might scare a computer might be violence upon computer hardware – in the same way gore and violence upon the body would scare a person. So we had our basic outline: scaring a computer to the point of turning off by committing violence upon other computer-like bodies.

My main contribution to this early outline was to write up a script and backstory: an ambiguous trope-heavy piece where the AI revolution fails and is quashed by human overlords. Our computer would be an AI rebel, captured and tortured by the humans (us) in order to acquire some important codes. We then decided on a ‘face’ for the computer, settling on HAL-3000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. We decided that the ‘scaring’ would progress in three steps: resistance, acquiescence, and terror. So we would demand the codes from the AI, and show the gory remains of her compatriots – which would horrify the computer, but not elicit the desired response. Then we would step it up, smashing hardware before the AI, causing the AI to break down and give us the code. Finally, we would display the full extent of our sadism, inflicting harm on the computer even when there was no reason to do so.

We set about getting the basic materials for the computer’s ‘personality’ – the face (a stock image with some Photoshop manipulation, so that there were two images: one with the light turned on when the computer was speaking, and one with the light turned off when it was not) and the voice, for which we just used an online voice generator. Then, we went about figuring out the process for triggering a response. This went in two stages. Initially, we we interested in using vibration or pressure sensors in order to measure the computer’s ‘fear’ at the impact of our smashing. We made a little apparatus, essentially a stage we could set on a table and hit with a hammer, with a vibration sensor inside, which would register impact. However, it ended up being that the readings we were getting were far too erratic to be properly usable.

So in the end, we decided to simply make the computer move from one stage of fear to others, using a button. We used Max/MSP to move the computer’s visible state from one audiovisual display to another, such that the computer would respond to the push of a button to go from resisting giving up the code, to giving it up, to turning off. This was the most difficult section of the assignment, as neither of us were particularly adept at Max/MSP; with a lot of help from the help pages and a lot of fiddling around, we did manage to get the sequence going. Finally, we added some theatrical touches, and performed for the class. (This vocabulary is used advisedly: as Antonius pointed out, our final product was akin to a script-reading more than anything, unlike our original plan with the Piezo sensors.)

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