Anthropomorphic gadgets become a thing

Marc Teyssier, Sorbonne graduate, interaction designer and researcher, Principal Investigator of Resilient Futures Group at the Da Vinci Innovation Center (France), has recently presented his new project — Eyecam, a webcam complete with eyelashes, eyelids, pupils and everything else a normal human eye relies on. The human eye webcam follows the user and even winks at them. The innovation sparked a rather heated debate. Some consider it creepy and even a little insane; others, offbeat and funny. Why do people create and buy anthropomorphic gadgets? Why is Teyssier shocking his contemporaries, and what is the concept behind his inventions?

Eyecam is modeled on a human eye and has a skin layer, a (robotic) musculoskeletal system, an eyebrow, eyelashes, and an eyeball. It runs on the Arduino Nano platform, so the “eye” can actually blink, look around and occasionally wink; it can also frown or raise the eyebrow in amazement. The skin (with very natural fine lines) is made of silicone; the eyebrows and eyelashes use human hair. The brilliant implementation of the project makes the webcam extremely realistic — one gets a feeling of being watched by a living human eye possibly extracted from Professor Dowell’s head in some hellish experiment, rather than a piece of equipment.

Human eyes are crucial for communication. Through the look, we can perceive happiness, anger, boredom or fatigue. We are familiar with these interaction cues influencing our social behavior. While webcams share the same purpose as the human eye —seeing— they are not expressive, not conveying and transmitting affect as the human eyes do. Eyecam brings back the affective aspects of the eye in the camera,” Marc Teyssier says.

Indeed, the webcam eye moves when a person in the room says something interesting or gestures vigorously, and freezes while “listening” attentively to a speaker, as if trying not to miss a word. In the future, the developers promise to expand Eyecam’s functionality and teach the camera to transmit its vis-à-vis’ facial expressions at a distance.

Teyssier is working on other interesting projects as well. One of them, Skin-On Interfaces, has to do with cases for various devices such as smartphones, computer mice, and smart bracelets that imitate human skin. The silicone skin is smart and digital, of course; underneath it, there are electrodes that help Skin-On respond to pressure, stretching, grip and other manipulations.

Human skin is the best interface for interaction. Skin-On interfaces can be added to existing devices to increase their capabilities,” Teyssier explains.

MobiLimb by Teyssier is a robotized finger that can be used with mobile devices. MobiLimb can be a convenient smart phone holder although its functionality is not limited to that. For example, it can move your smart phone closer to you.

It may look a bit eerie though because the robotized finger will drag the smart phone across the table or the floor while wiggling like a caterpillar. The finger can also send an emoji on your behalf or stroke your hand.

“Humans expand their capability thanks to new devices. Why not expand the capabilities of devices by making them a little more human?” Teyssier says.

The main purpose of Marc Teyssier’s projects is not, however, to make devices more convenient or to come up with a shocking design. It is more important for the researcher to strike a debate about the future of technology in our lives and about people’s relationships with smart devices.

We are surrounded by technology which is now an integral part of our lives. We often take devices for granted and long stopped noticing them. Does their presence affect our own behavior? Do they have to be transparent and invisible to users?

What are the challenges of the Internet of Things? How can we protect privacy and show users that they are being watched? Can we develop intelligent devices that will be present when they are needed but respectfully make themselves scarce when they are not? Teyssier’s designs will definitely make users ponder over these difficult questions.

In the age of political correctness, users can even choose between the white, yellow or brown skin tone for their anthropomorphic devices.

By Natalia Sysoyeva

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