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ICC Collection

“Terrain_02: Solar Robot Environment for Two Users” [1997]


“Terrain_02: Solar Robot Environment for Two Users”


Two users sit facing each other, wearing interfaces of a brainwave detection system on their heads. Between the two is a round glass table where the solar robots live. The brain waves of the users are measured, analyzed and compared. The alteration in wave patterns determine the speed, behavior and the terrain areas of activity. The movement of the robots will be lively if the users minds are calm.



Related Information

Artist’s Statement

Two users are confronted with each other. They sit, face to face, engaged in a non-verbal dialogue, a round table in between them. The system reflects the users’ inter-relation.

The table’s glass surface is the terrain for a population of solar robots. It is light-controlled and set up to be illuminated from both sides. The solar robots wait for light energy upon the glass. The two users are interfaced with head mounted brain wave sensors. Their brain wave frequencies are continuously measured, analyzed, and compared. The inter-relation of these frequencies is interpreted and determines the environmental situation of the robots’ terrain. The results are applied in the form of changing light intensities of lamps, projected onto the glass plate from above and below. The intensities control the robots’ speed, behavior, and the terrain areas of robot activity.

Due to the different combinations of users and their inner and bottom-up affect the terrain. The robot population begins to move in significant patterns of motion over the changing terrain area. The patterns are the interpretation of the two users’ synergy, embodying subliminal tendencies: the more closely the brain wave frequencies of the users resemble each other, the more homogeneously the robot population moves, attaining a fluidity of motion and behavior over the entire robot terrain.

Robots’ Environment

The round glass plate that constitutes the terrain is lit by groups of electroluminescent flat-lamps (EL-Sheets) from below and halogen spotlights from above. Each top light group correlates to a floor-light group and activates the area on which it is focused. The lamps project from two sides, sections of dimmable patterns onto the terrain. The sections are controlled separately in correspondence to the correlation of the brain wave frequencies of the two users.

The top-down lamps provide light energy to the robots’ solar cells, which supply the power needed for movement, sensing, and behavior. The more that light hits the solar panel, the faster the robots move.

The robots are equipped with five front, one back, and one bottom sensor. The front and back sensors are photo-transistors that point onto the immediate surrounding floor area. The “robot eyes” see the top-down light intensities cast on the environment. In contrast to lit areas, dark areas function as an important environmental factor: dark shapes, like the robots’ shadows and terrain border are viewed as “objects to avoid” and cause the robots’ directional decisions.

According to variances in light intensity the electromagnetic wave emissions of the EL-Sheets located below change. The robot’s bottom sensor, a pick-up coil, measures the wave. If the robot moves to another floor area wth a different EL-Sheet intensity, its bottom sensor will detect the new wave signal and the robot will switch to the new behavioral state determined for it:

no behavior: the robot drives straight forward
spinning: the robot stays in one location
panic: the robot moves straight forward and backward
avoidance: the robot avoids objects until it gets stuck at an object directly in front of it
full behavior: spinning, avoidance, and panic function together to lead to the continuously fluid movement of the robot

(Ulrike GABRIEL)

On the Artist’s Works

Ulrike GABRIEL develops interactive works that use breathing, the movements of the eye, and other aspects of the human body as a direct interface. Her “Terrain” series of recent years uses brain waves to control numerous robots.

At first glance, the movements of Ulrike GABRIEL’s robots seem extremely complex, yet in actuality their patterns of movement are determined by the simple external stimuli of light contrasts. Indeed, these robots would seem to approximate our prototypical image of the robot.

With the rapid advances in various technologies today, the work “robot” has already begun to stir up certain feelings of nostalgia in us. What was named by Karel ČAPEK almost a hundred years ago symbolized an existence at the opposite pole of the human being—in other words, a lifeless machine. Because its appearance approximated the human figure when it first appeared, the robot was in fact able to make us constantly aware of this essential difference.

Yet in recent images of “artificial life” and “artificial intelligence” made possible by contemporary technology, we have little sense of being jarred by the mechanical. Or rather, we should say that the substantive image of something that, like the robot, resembles the human being is persistently hidden therein. Perhaps this is a measure taken to permanently avoid creating the kind of naive “misunderstandings” seen in the world of science fiction—that “robots become human” or “human beings turn into robots.”

GABRIEL’s work with robots offers us “Terrain” for questioning the naiveté of these naive misunderstandings of ours. The changes of light that generate the robots’ complex movements are themselves generated by the brain waves of those who participate in the work. However, such changes are not a reflection of the participants’ thoughts or will; rather, they are proportionate to the volume of alpha waves, brain waves that occur in a state of extreme relaxation and cessation of thought.

Thus in GABRIEL’s work, thought, the most human of activities, becomes that which will alienate us from the robots’ motion. The will to control the robots actually stops their motion or throws them into a panic. So the participants in this work can only endow the robots with movement/life by not thinking, which is to say, by becoming robots themselves.

In a way, the reversal of the controller and the controlled becomes visible through the contrast between the sight of people (the participants) sitting down and closing their eyes in meditation and the complex movements of the robots that result from this. But it is here that GABRIEL’s work truly questions the naiveté of seeing a tragic relationship between ČAPEK’s theatrical robots and human beings. In other words, GABRIEL attempts to create the terrain for questioning the dualistic relationality (disjunction) of modern technology and human beings, the controller and the controlled, which gives rise to such naiveté and for discovering new relations.

(GOGOTA Hisanori)

List of Works