Conversation Piece (2009)

Conversation Piece is an interactive artwork designed to explore the boundaries between virtual and real world experience. It is an intelligent room that uses speech recognition and synthesis software, a dialogue management system, microphone arrays and directional sound sources to conduct disembodied dialogues that mimic social relations with human users.

Full Description

In the installation two small sculptures are displayed on exhibition plinths. People entering the space are automatically tracked using webcams positioned overhead. When someone moves past one of the sculptures the disembodied voice of our virtual character, ‘Heather’ tries to catch his or her attention by saying ‘Hello’, or ‘Excuse me’. As an individual approaches one of the sculptures ‘Heather’ will then try to engage that person in conversation. Using keywords to interpret what is said in reply, she will try to pursue a dialogue with the user that can be heard only at a particular location in the space.

Conversation Piece raises questions such as: “what if computers could convincingly perform human emotions?” and “can humans engage in meaningful social interactions with machines?” In the installation the sophisticated technologies used to emulate human communication processes are concealed to enable an apparently seamless convergence of the real and the virtual. For each user the illusion of meaningful social exchange is mediated by the extent to which he or she projects personality or emotional content into the synthesized voice, and how much he or she chooses to engage with the projected personality. On one level the work investigates the extent to which any human interaction is concerned with projection and imagination.

Rather than relying on traditional input devices to facilitate interactivity, the interface is rendered transparent by the use of concealed microphone arrays and focused directional sound. The directional speakers ensure that ‘Heather's’reactions can only be heard by someone standing close to a plinth. Absorption panels are used to enhance the directionality of the sound. It is important that the technology is hidden because this helps to give the illusion that the virtual character really is listening and responding. It encourages people interacting with the work to attribute human sensibilities to the machine, even in the absence of any visible human features.

To some degree the effectiveness of the work is enhanced by the limitations of the media. The minor prosodic errors which reveal ‘Heather’s’ mechanical nature work in conjunction with her apparent social intelligence and use of language (an exclusively human trait) to provoke an interesting state of uncertainty in the user. Misrecognitions occasionally give the feel of talking to a rather obtuse and distracted person who is also prone to flirt with you. It is in part this mis-behaviour of the system, combined with ‘Heather’s’ persistence in continuing the conversation regardless, which differentiate ‘Conversation Piece’ from more typical goal oriented dialogue systems which lack personality.

Work metadata

  • Year Created: 2009
  • Submitted to ArtBase: Monday Feb 21st, 2011
  • Original Url:
  • Work Credits:
    • Alf Linney, Scientific Advisor
    • Mike Lincoln, Scientific Collaborator
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