by Matthew Ari Elfenbein

The interactive film, Sally or the Bubble Burst by Toni Dove, raised my skepticism of how a DVD was going to commingle narrative and voice recognition into a coherent piece.  I was not sure how the film would correctly change channels with the various responses or how it would respond to the user because of the more limited technological capacities of DVD.  This was quelled when we began to exhibit the film, which showed that the voice recognition was made of a simple two-way path; however, we will explore the limitations it was confined to.  The responsiveness was remarkably intricate for what was presented in the film, especially knowing that DVDs follow paths, but here it seemed to be mixed as if on a turntable.

The first hurdle was utilizing a computer that seemed to come from a museum because of its archaic construction.  The medium specificity of the computer’s operating system played a role, which was not an original intention of Dove, because the film would not play on any new computers that had more modern technology.  The way this situation is unintentionally intertwined with the narrative of the chair, bubble, and radio shows how the exponential pace technology is changing.  There were many cases of reflexive talk from the objects as “today’s technology is tomorrow’s junk,” and this plot was stringed throughout the piece.  The idea conforms to the notion that each object acted as part of a database, inserting a handful of quotes perpetuating the idea of technological redundancy (Kinder).  The fact that the older computer and DVD were marvels of their time (although some short lived), now in days they are considered relics of the past and are obsolete in many functions of life.

However, innovation was not absent in this piece, especially with the use of voice recognition as a way to interact with the “Human” character of Sally.  Her appearance was jarring, visually cacophonous, and she sounded like an android; thus, giving a creepy connotation to the character.  It is not common for interactions to have physical motions characterized by jerky motions and asynchronous sound; however, this is the case with Sally, imposing that we are no longer interacting with a human but a humanoid, and sometimes a broken machine.

Looking to conceptualize this piece I was at a loss, because there seemed to be no linear makeup to help categorize this in a traditional sense.  When I was pointed towards Marsha Kinder’s article on “Designing a Database Cinema” all the pieces seemed to fall in place.  It became clear that this piece fell into the sub-genre of the “personal memoir,” which Kinder describes as being a building of memories and ideologies that a person collects as they go through life.  A database of experiences becomes the structure behind the narrative of Sally or the Bubble Burst.

 

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Sally the human or humanoid?  Source: Digital Art Archive

A further study into the voice recognition highlights some areas that stuck out in relation to changing the conversation in the film.  On the first hand, when watching the film you must learn how to respond; therefore, there is a learning curve needed to properly talk to her.  For example, she does not recognize long phrases or complicated words, but she will respond to answers of “yes” or “no” well.  In chances where she would give you options to respond to she would often times “hear” the opposite of what we said, which gave the impression that she was not going to have diversity in her answers and they were predestined.  Another odd thing when talking was the changing of the tone of voice, purely talking about our voice; therefore, there were a couple instances where you would say the same word with different inflection and she would recognize only certain phrasing.

One of my roles in the group was to configure and operate the program, which turned out to be easier than I expected because of my familiarity with older Macintosh operating systems.  It is interesting that the DVD technology that seems primitive today worked well in its ideal environment of the older computer.  An interesting conundrum that modern technology lacks of support for these old media and interactive platforms, even in an age where interaction fits in your pocket; however, technology prides itself on being more inclusive in compatibility all the time.

There is complexity in the film’s compositional structure, such as the ability to detect voice commands and being able to manipulate the video with the position of the cursor or voice (which was not so responsive).  When she is dancing there the ability to “edit” the performance in real time, showing that we are in control of her life.  This place the voice recognition was not very responsive, but the cursor allowed easy manipulation.  For its time, the interactive quality is quite ingenious and again shows that technology is constantly changing.

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The objects of yesteryear.  Source: Digital Art Archive

As for glitches, there was one major problem in the “Sally Sings” section.  If the keyboard is pressed rapidly, she would try to achieve the input; however, she would end up sounding out noise fragments and the image would stop attempting to match.  The experience was similar to someone experiencing a convulsive seizure, where there was not much control of the subject just a spectacle (no, not fun to watch) of image and sound.  Also she would make a sound with a key press, but they would be different sounds each time on the same key.  At first you believe you are controlling her every speech pattern, when in actuality it turns out her specific diction was inevitable.

The experience of Sally or the Bubble Burst was engaging and challenging.  This is because a lot of the navigation in the film had to be learnt as we explored, and there was not too much help from the manual.  It was an interesting comparison to see how interaction with the humanoid differs to the faceless dialogue between Siri and the user (or any modern personal assistant type of voice recognition).  This film really enlightened me on the ideas of interacting with humans and the traits that make it a “normal” conversation, compared to the disjointed and robotic Sally.

A video of the group’s interactions and reactions can be found here.

Sources:
  • Toni Dove: Sally or the Bubble Burst DVD-ROM, 2003, Bustlelamp Productions
  • Marsha Kinder. “Designing a Database Cinema,” pps. 346-353. Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film. Ed. Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, ZKM/Center for Art and Media Karlsruche, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003.

Word Count: 1025

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