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Perceived self or biofeedback

By perceived self i refer to the effects achieved or technics used in David Rokbys "VNS" or Chalotte Davies "Ephémère".
Generally it is possible to say that they achieve their compelling effects due to biofeedback to which people may react very strong.

Quality of self or physical self

We experience our own body, we can smell it and have a sense of our limbs. Transpersonal psychology refers to the body as the 'skin encapsulated ego". We may sing, and hear ourselves singing - but it sounds different for the singer than it does for a potential listener.
This is only a theoretical model that does not excist in this "purity." We have an embodied existence and can only experience (mirror) ourselves in the world (and people) that surrounds us.
When there is no audible input as in an anechoic chamber we hear our own nervous system as a high pitch, and our blood circulating as a static drone. If we get no visual and auditive input our deprived brain starts creating colourful hallucinations which people experience in mediation tanks filled with salt water and creating the illusion of weightlessness.

The following state is purely hypothetical. Being immersed in a meditation tank we react with hallucinations induced through sensory deprivation. Staying there longer would cause damage.

Perceived quality of the other

The environment adds its own qualities, temperature, textures ... Some may think this is our normal state of being ... as observers, but it is not. There is no such thing as an independent observer. One always creates the system one is participating in. This is also a hypothetical state as this type of clear object - observer relationship does not exist in this way. The observer is always part of the system, and can only "see" what s/he wants to see, is able to see.


When qualities of the environment are "synchronised" with the perception of the own body, and mirrored back to it a powerful effect of biofeedback is achieved. David Rokeby calls this resonance. Musicians must experience it all the time, as the movement of the arm creates the sound of the violin. Perhaps also the strange satisfaction of singing in a choir results from this.

Interactive environments may achieve even more subtle and striking effects as "natural' things would afford. In "Shockwave Rider" from Brunner he describes a 'light and sound organ" in a disco-like setting which is operated by the dancers themselves. The game "The wild devine" is making use of this.

A conversation with a person is also "biofeedback' as the person reacts to us and "mirrors" us. We see ourselves in other people. But why is phone more intimate and meaningful then videochat? Interesting follow-up on this at

David Rokeby: Biofeedback in "Very Nervous System"

"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 experie
nce 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.” (Rokeby)

“Very Nervous System” was created in 1986-1990. 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.
Unfortunately it is impossible to receive any feedback from him as his interests seem to have moved on to other areas.

“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.”

“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.”

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 content and, extending the 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.”


the natures of experiences

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” started afterwards also interacting with objects on a table, 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. you may download a tar.gz

What Rokebys work shares with “Frequent_Traveller”, “Ephemere”, “Videoplace” and other interactive works is a strong perception of ones own body through synchronised feedback. (As conventional human computer interaction with a mouse is operating with synchronised feedback as well, but it becomes tacit and internalised from present-at-hand to ready-at-hand so fast.)
The prevailing characteristics of Rokebys works have extensive embodied interaction in them, which are perceived deeply by the visitors 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.

last update: 1/7/02008 0:53

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