Photo credit: Windell H. Oskay,
on creative engineering and new media art

Mental Radio (2007)

April 23rd, 2008

mental radio

A tool for exploring extrasensory perception

Interactive installation by Ulrika Sparre (2007). Produced at the Interactive Institute with Sparre as Artist in Residence. Programming and interface design by Fredrik Bridell.

Mental Radio contains an archive of drawings. The viewer is invited to try to guess the current drawing, hidden from view, and try to make a similar drawing.

The Mental Radio is inspired by experiments carried out by parapsychologists to explore the existence of extrasensory perception (ESP), in particular the type of experiment known as Ganzfeld (which is not a name, it means “entire field” in German). In such tests, two persons – one sender and one receiver, in separate rooms – try to transfer something telepathically. The receiver wears halves of ping-pong balls over the eyes and headphones with pink noise, to block out the audiovisual senses. The receiver typically watches a randomly selected video and tries to “send” what he or she sees, e.g. by talking out loud while watching it. Afterwards, the receiver gets to see a number of possible matches and is asked to say which one he or she thinks is the one the sender saw.

Another precursor is the series of experiments carried out by Upton Sinclair and his wife Mary, where she would attempt to copy drawings using her telepathic abilities. In this case the receiver is not presented with a range of options to choose from but is asked to draw her impressions directly, and whether or not the copy matches the original is a judgment call.

In this piece, artist Ulrika Sparre has loaded a computer with a number of monochrome drawings. (So there is no “sender”, which arguably makes this a case of testing for clairvoyance or remote viewing rather than telepathy). The user walks up to installation, and puts a pen to a wacom graphics tablet. At the touch, a secondary screen lights up and displays one of the original drawings. However, the drawing is hidden behind a plate, so there really is no way of knowing what it displays (at least not using conventional senses). The user tries to to “receive” the drawing and paint a copy of it using the wacom tablet. When the user is done she presses a key on the tablet, after which the screen displays both images (the original and what the user drew) side by side for better comparison. All the images that the users draw are saved on disk along with log files of when they were made and to which original, so it is possible to go back and examine the similarities later on.

I had no part in the artistic aspects of this piece, but I did do all the programming and figuring out of how to design for a system using a wacom pad as the only input. The system uses a wacom tablet, a PC and two screens (one for displaying the original drawings, hidden from view, and one for the drawing). It does not use a mouse and keyboard, only the wacom tablet and the function keys that are on the tablet. There is also a special type of wacom pen that works as a real ink pen, so you can put a regular paper on top of wacom pad and just draw. The sketching software is made to match this behavior, and tries to have the look and feel of drawing with an ink pen on a white sheet of paper. The “interface” is very minimalistic – really just a blank, white fullscreen interface, except for a status line on top that hints at what you are supposed to do next. There is no undo, just like in real life.

The system as such does not make any judgment as to how similar the copy is to the original – this is one of those things that machines really are quite incapable of, at least at present. Sure, we could have done some sort of image comparison, but what’s interesting is the semantic similarity, not the visual.

The software is a Java application that uses JTablet for interfacing with the wacom tablet and Processing for drawing the graphics and saving the files to disk. There is also a pink noise generator, using pd. If anybody is interested in the software, e-mail me.

See also