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David Rokeby: "Very Nervous System," 1983-1996

“The installation is a complex but quick feedback loop. The feedback is not simply 'negative' or 'positive', inhibitory or reinforcing; the loop is subject to constant transformation as the elements, human and computer, change in response to each other. The two interpenetrate, until the notion of control is lost and the relationship becomes encounter and involvement.”(Rokeby)

Areas: Biofeedback, transformation, engagement

Image: D.Rokeby

“Very Nervous System” was created between 1983-1996. The system uses video camera(s), computer and synthesizer to create a space in which body movements are translated in real-time into sound or music. It is my favourite example for an artistic biofeedback experience. It is almost imposible to describe the experience in words - it is very intense, vivid and moving.

Rokeby has explored his technology for over ten years and is very familiar with its effects.
He has written very little about it, but the material available show profound insight.

“An hour of the continuous, direct feedback in this system strongly reinforces a sense of connection with the surrounding environment. Walking down the street afterwards, I feel connected to all things. The sound of a passing car splashing through a puddle seems to be directly related to my movements. I feel implicated in every action around me. On the other hand, if I put on a CD, I quickly feel cheated that the music does not change with my actions.“

“(…)The diffuse, parallel nature of the interaction and the intensity of the interactive feedback loop can produce a state that is almost shamanistic.”

"It is ironic that wide-open interaction within a system that does not impose significant constraints is usually unsatisfying to the interactor... It has been my experience that the interactor's sense of personal impact on an interactive system grows, up to a point, as their [sic] freedom to affect the system is increasingly limited. The constraints provide a frame of reference, a context, within which interaction can be perceived.”

(Léon Theremin experimented in the late 1920s and 1930s with Theremin devices that could be played by the motion of the full body and not merely the movements of the hands or arms. Even skilled ballet dancers had difficulties "playing" these instruments in which the slightest movement of the fingers would already have a large impact upon the sound. Apparently no one ever succeeded in playing it properly.1)

Rokeby is well aware of the implications of his work, as he has been studying them extensively between 1983 and 1996 in different iterations of “VNS”. He describes the interface itself as the content and, extending this term to other interfaces, states that “Whether we intend it or not, we’re redesigning the ways that we experience the world and each other.”

In a wider sense he also claims that his principles might relate to general interaction design: “Exposure to technologies also changes the ways we think and talk about our experiences.” and “If culture, in the context of interactive media becomes something we “do”, it’s the interface that defines how we do it and how the “doing” feels.”

Rokeby is well aware of the implications of his work as he writes: “Exposure to technologies also change the ways that we think and talk about our experiences.” Hiroshi Iishi made a similar statement at the Bath HCI 2003 conference, when he pointed out that people that had experienced his installation “tangible bits” began interacting with objects on a table afterwards, while explaining something. While we think we are doing something with the Computer, in fact the computer is also doing something with us. “Interfaces leave imprints on our perceptual systems which we carry out into the world.” [Rokeby] e.g. taking a wrong turn with the car and reaching mentally for an “undo” short key. Some of these effects have been described extensively in the list “You know you’ve been hacking too long” . Some have instantaneous others long term implications.

What Rokebys work shares with “Frequent_Traveller”, “Ephemere”, “Videoplace” and other interactive works is an increased perception of ones own body through synchronised feedback. Experiencing ones own body stands in the centre of the piece. (Conventional human computer interaction e.g. with a mouse is operating through synchronised feedback as well, as the closed circuit between hand - mouse, eyes -cursor shows. But this interaction becomes tacit and internalised from present-at-hand to ready-at-hand in very short time. The mouse is more of a two-dimensional and goal oriented device then a pleasurable one that serves it purpose well. Online banking on a "Dance Dance Revolution" Pad. Probably possible, but there must be easier ways. The "interface" is more of a functional and simplistic extension of the own body (ready-at-hand) that one only consciously becomes aware of in case it is not working properly. The hand-mouse loop is a cognitive one and goal oriented, whereas "VNS" is a sensual, physical embodied experience that emphasises the moment.)

VNS creates an visceral, audible encounter with ones own body. This is perceived as a very strong experience by participants when encountering their own feedback loops. A phenomenon Rokeby calls “Resonance”. With the physical dimension of own body motion involved, these could be described as the “quality of perceived self” or “self” - mirrored in the environment.

Rokeby's work and writing is very profound as his approach is critical, reflective and full of scrutiny. Regretably he has written merely a few short texts. On the other hand the little he has written is full of insights, very condensed and reveals always more upon further reading.


last update: 3/28/02008 13:06

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