Surface Tensions

“A Ghost Story for the Connected Age”

Surface Tensions is an interactive narrative installation where users influence the dinner conversation of an unseen couple by sitting in the chairs and picking up items on the table. As the story unfolds, tensions between the couple are manipulated by the users interaction with objects in the space, creating a unique performance between system and user. This installation merges sensor data, scripted language and system logic to achieve a responsive and unique theatrical experience.

A unique aspect of the project is the complete invisibility of the technology. At first glance, the installation looks like an everyday space of someone’s home, but a look underneath the table or the dishes on the tabletop will reveal that the entire installation is filled with sensors and speakers.

The idea and concept for this project comes out of research into the space of quantified self and concerns over the evolving surveillant aspects of the connected home. In responding to this research, I conceived of an experience where users would be able to gain insights into and manipulate the emotions of unseen characters within the installation space by engaging with objects on a dinner table. I wanted to find ways to break the fourth narrative wall and create further opportunities to implicate the user within the story. This project can be seen as an extension of concepts that were developed around eavesdropping while researching Plush Reverb.

The narrative system logic takes in simple analog data from sensors scattered through the space. The entire system can be seen as over 300 unique dialogue cues. In between each cue the system looks for environmental changes and shifts the dialogue accordingly. An important rule I had for the system was that character’s dialogue would never be cut off in response to immediate changes in the environment. Instead, cue points and pieces of the dialogue would be incredibly short allowing for the system to constantly check the environmental sensors and rearrange the narrative accordingly. (See narrative logic diagram)

To realize the written mundane dialogue of each of the different emotional levels of the script of the characters, I collaborated with writer, Lorne Svarc, who wrote parallel scripts for each of the levels of emotion required for this system, ranging from pleasant to aggressive. As different elements of interactivity were added to the project, dialogue was then specifically written to fit within the narrative interactions of the system. The dialogue was then recorded with actors and cut up into the smallest possible dialogue cue points to be fed into the interactive system.

The entire system was developed using MaxMSP and NodeJS. It was built using 6 speakers, 1 Arduino, 8 Light Blue Beans and a Mac Mini.


Script: Lorne Svarc

Actors: Ryan Natalino & Brandon Finegold

Sound Recording: Alchemy Post Sound

Special Thanks to Corey Brown, Marko Tandefelt, Sven Travis, Alex Joseph, and Alchemy Post Sound

This project was a Masters Thesis completed for the Design & Technology Program at Parsons.


* First Prize Winner at NYC Media Lab Summit *