Ashby's Grandmother's Foosteps


This project opened up the closed generative networks of previous projects to the real world, experimenting with the use of simple adaptive systems as a means of mediating responsive environments in an interactive and generative sonic game.

Ashby's Grandmother's Footsteps is a play on the children's game Grandmother's Footsteps where one person stands at the end of the room facing a wall and all the others have to creep up on them. At any point (for instance if they hear movement), Grandmother can turn around, whereupon any child caught moving has to return to the far wall and start again from there. This is a cybernetic version, where Grandmother is a homeostat, receiving information about a person's movement via video analysis and commanding control sonically.

Ashby's Grandmother's Foosteps

The piece was installed at the Artpool gallery, Budapest as part of the Process Revealed exhibition in conjunction with the EvoMusArt workshop at EuroGP 2006.

Approaching the back of the underground room, visitors to the exhibition hear a faint drone emanating from a pair of wireless headphones hanging on a nail on the whitewashed wall. Fortunately people love being allowed to pick things up in galleries, so this is enough to get them interested. They put them on, and turn to face a previously concealed corridor. Alice-in-Wonderland what's-down-the-rabbit-hole curiosity is again enough to make them approach it. Stepping past an invisible boundary, they suddenly hear themselves walking as if on amplified delicate gravel. Walking the corridor, every movement is heard. As they progress down the corridor, the monophonic drone builds and differentiates, developing strange harmonies. A bold step forward triggers a SCREECH - loud enough to halt them for a moment and aversive enough to want to avoid it. Now they must creep slowly to the end of the corridor and turn off Grandmother's eyes.

Ashby's Grandmother's Foosteps

Within the space, the visitors' movements are implicated within three principle feedback loops. Each is associated with a different measure of movement and contributes to different aspects of the sound scape. The homeostat is used as the principle 'Grandmother' control - the actual threshold of critical movement being determined by the current state of the homeostat (> F(H)? above)

A second low level continuous feedback is given by directly sonifying the rate of change of movement (shown as F(dx)). This acts to augment the standard sensory-motor loop which engages us in the world, and aims to create a very personal and immediate sense of artificial reality by heightening awareness of movement.

Finally the movement of visitors down the corridor (labelled F(dx)) triggers progressive changes in the harmonic drones, as well as increasing levels of some of the incidental sounds; this was designed to give a basic sense of progression in the sound world, reflecting the visitor's progression in physical space. In contrast to these sets of mappings between aspects of movement and sound, if the user stops completely still for a certain period, a contrasting set of sounds is introduced.

All three movement measures are derived from a motion detection algorithm operating on a live video feed. The DVCam was situated at the end of the corridor and covered its length. All sounds were delivered via wireless headphones.

One of the aims of the installation was to play with the user's feeling of control in the space. Ultimately, they have to play the Grandmother's footsteps game on the machine's terms and try and cheat it with stealth-like movement. In addition to this simple game playing, the piece contains elements of interactive and generative sound. 'Grandmother' is only concerned with whether or not they move too quickly. Others aspects of their movement through the space evoke and control several other layers of sound. This was designed to encourage and augment exploration of small movements in the space, giving heightened sensory-motor feedback.

listen Example walk down the corridor ...

Full details can be found in chapter vii of my thesis.

Ashby's Grandmother's Foosteps

Installation set up for Ashby's Grandmother's Footsteps

Made at Creative Systems Lab and CCNR, Sussex University.

© ecila. 2010