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creature Made On Earth — Emotional Aquatics

Inspired by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s short story of a man’s emotional obsession with aquarium life, Axolotl is about more than just an algorithmically enhanced animation displaying life-like traits from a fish tank. It’s also about the responses it gets.

NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) grad student Eyal Ohana, 35, came up with the idea for Axolotl while brainstorming ways to portray life — and instigate reaction — through motion and form. Classmate Filippo Vanucci, 28, joined forces for its physical and interactive implementation. The result is a 3D audiovisual display attracting onlookers with a digitized squid-like creature that responds to facial recognition by simulating a sense of interaction and involvement.

To create Axolotl’s creature, Ohana and Vanucci utilized the open source programming language Processing 1.0. Each of the creature’s movements, such as undulating and contracting, are subject to physical forces like gravity and friction, but are also modified with unpredicted values. This generates non-repetitive, fluid motions similar to swimming, giving it a 3D appearance. “We’re still waiting for the creature to surprise us and do something really stupid we didn’t teach it,” says Ohana.

The creature is projected onto a fish tank from behind while an attached camera captures faces, streaming them into the computer where OpenCV-based software detects each face and its position.

“Metaphorically speaking,” says Ohana, “our creature can see.” It then reacts in one of two ways: shy but playfully curious, or totally terrified — a shrinking retreat that viewers seem to favor. Sound texture correlating to the creature’s movements adds ambiance. It was most recently shown at Brooklyn’s MediaLounge festival in June 2009.

Responses are diverse. Some see Axolotl as something funny and cute. Others try to trick it, hoping for a sudden reaction. But one thing’s certain: for eliciting interaction, it’s a success.

Axolotl Video: eyalohana.com/axolotl


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