Meet Robobrain. He’s a head of a robot. He doesn’t listen, he talks through his eyes. He talks with noises, but you can interpret freely what you want to listen. You can see through his brain, but you may not be able to perceive what you see with your naked eyes and ears. He tries to communicate with you with common objects, yet what you’ll get is something completely uncommon. That is Robobrain.
Robobrain is my interactive sound art installation, made for the sound art exhibition “Derau” held by the Bandung’s new media art community, Common Room. In this installation, I’m trying to de-construct and construct how today’s communication is. With so many noises happening, a disinformation is just bound to happen. Today’s society tends to see with what they hear, and that plays a major role in how people perceive something. They listen to something bad about something and even before they see that thing, they already had a bad conception about it. That’s why I use robot as a form, because I can then freely construct and de-construct these metaphoric elements through how it will look while still being strangely familiar to the audience.
I also like to play with how it looks versus how it sounds. At it’s essence, Robobrain is just a noise generator, but I tried to make it looks less complicated and a little bit childish by using common objects such as cardboards, plastic food case and leaves as its main constructing objects. In the end, visually, it looks nothing dangerous, but once you hear it, it becomes something quite alien. I also employs a small guitar amplifier as its sound output, and it’s also visible, because I want to make an impression that this alien robot is trying to communicate with something that people are used to see.
This installation is created using only Arduino board and some electronic components. No laptop or sound file playback are involved.
The Sound and Interaction
Changing the input voltage coming to the Arduino generates the sound on this installation. Some of the changing are created by rotating the three potentiometers. Another changing are achieved by sensing the sound from the plastic and leaves movement on the robot’s brain. That movement is created using a PC fan, so the resulting movement will always be random and that randomness will create a further variety on the resulting sound. Thus, even with the same knob position, the generated sound will never be the same. The sound will be played continuously; it’s not a loop because it never returned to the original sound. This is an analogy to how information transmitted; it has that degree of noise that can alter the original information. Even when one person talks to several people at the same time, the information transmitted by those listeners may be different.
Audience can interact with Robobrain through the knobs in Robobrain’s face. These three knobs let the audience change the oscillator frequency, pitch and tempo of the generated noise. The resulting sound ranges from something quite futuristic, imagine the swoosh of a space ship to downright abstract noise. There’s also an LED that will be turned on and off depending on the frequency of the oscillator, as if it’s pulsing following the tempo of the sound. These three elements, knobs, interactive sound and LED are things that I put as interaction objects of this installation.
As an interface, knobs are something that people are familiar with, so, people can easily afford to use it and they can expect that something is going to happen when they turn these knobs. The sound is the result of this interaction through knobs, and with the broad range of sound, I expect people to keep on playing with the knobs to find the sound that they like. This is again a metaphor to how disinformations happen, because words are twisted to the preference of somebody. While the LED acts as a visual elements that act as a reward to somebody who played the knobs. Its’ interacting pulse can attract people to acknowledge that there’s something there that wants to communicate and people can actually communicate with it.
I got some positive feedback from people played with Robobrain. Some people commenting on how they find the installation cute and funny because of how it looks and how they can play with the knobs. While some people with music background actually commented on how good the generated sound is, note that these people are serious synthesizer fan, so it’s flattering to hear it from them. I omit labelling the knobs because I want the audience to play with it, and from my examination, I can see people played with the knobs trying to figure which knob does what and they had fun interacting with it. I guess this proves how a simple and familiar interface can be engaging to people.
In the end, I’m so happy with this installation, because I’ve always wanted to create a sound installation, and from a technical point of view I always challenge myself to create a simple system on a microcontroller without using laptop. This installation also taught me how powerful an Arduino is and how it can be exploited to create a synthesizer/sound generator without adding external sound input. On the other hand, having learned interaction design for the past one year, I have a chance to apply what I’ve learned on this installation. Even though I have an ambition to employ a cutting edge interface, I sort of held back and decided to deploy a familiar interface just to see how people reaction to it. Still, it proves to be fruitful, people can use it. I can take this into account to my next installation where a more sophisticated tangible user interface is expected. In short, this has been an invaluable experience for the future.