“With cameras, you never know if you’re looking at”

It’s a camera looking at you. But really, that is, with an eye, an eyelid that opens and closes, an eyebrow. Researcher in the design of interactive interfaces at the Léonard-de-Vinci university center in Paris, Marc Teyssier called it the EyeCam (camera-eye). And if you find the object disturbing, that’s normal: that’s the goal. This critical design project calls for a reflection on the sensors all around us and to which we get used to without questioning anything. Explanations with the researcher, who had also put a human finger on a smartphone …

Sciences et Avenir: Does the EyeCam work for good or it all comes down to the way it looks?

Marc Teyssier: It is a functional webcam, it can be connected to a computer. But indeed, the whole critical, even bizarre, aspect of the project comes from its appearance, from its form of a human eye. I conducted it when I was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Saarland, Germany, in the Human-Machine Interaction laboratory.

What was at stake?

There are several reasons. First, my previous projects were anthropomorphic design. It was my thesis subject, by the way. I put people in technology. This human-technology relationship is very present in our current world and in the science fiction imagination. But I like to recall this vision of a transhumanist future, where man will be augmented by the machine, to place myself precisely on the opposite side and increase machines with human parts. I explore what this can lead to with objects of today and what it will look like with objects of tomorrow.

What were your other projects in this area?

My thesis work focused on social touch, such as that which allows you to comfort someone for example. We practice it in the physical world but we lose it completely with today’s digital technologies, especially the cell phone. So, for my first job, I thought to myself: why not put a human finger on a cell phone? Which resulted in a hyper-bizarre, very Addams family device [MobiLimb, en 2018, NDLR] !

It got a lot of people reacting on the Internet and I continued. My second project, Skin-On Interfaces, is a very realistic imitation human skin containing sensors to detect touch. All on a mobile phone or instead of numeric keypads. This device makes it possible to interact with computers in a completely new way. The action of pinching, for example, is impossible on classic touch interfaces. In an artificial skin, we can integrate a system that can detect it.

The EyeCam is also wrapped in a fake skin.

Yes, but she doesn’t react. It was I who developed the manufacturing techniques, based on pigmented silicone. I manually sculpted an object in the shape of an eye, made a mold, etc. The final step was to add eyelashes and an eyebrow.

Beyond its appearance, does this eye-camera also simulate the behavior of a human eye?

Yes. The eyelid blinks, the eye moves, gets tired at the end of the day. My idea was to strengthen the parallel with the human gaze because, in the end, a camera and an eye have the same function: to see. Except that a webcam is static and always looks towards one place.

I am always a little wary of cameras. You never know who is looking at us, if even someone is looking at us. We can also get hacked. Before this project, I used to unplug my webcam or turn it towards the wall. Conversely, a human eye, we know where it is looking, we know if it is closed, so that it is not looking, we know if it is looking elsewhere. He is also expressive, he knows how to communicate emotions, such as fatigue and anger.

Do you want to give the impression that the camera is embodied, that there is someone behind?

Rather, I want to show that it is, in fact. Someone is watching, or is likely to be watching. Beyond the object itself, there will be a scientific presentation at the CHI (Human Factors in Computing Systems) conference in May. [du 8 au 13 mai 2021, NDLR]. The article we published falls under what is called speculative or critical design. It is a practice of design which consists in developing a project, a product, according to extreme principles to make people think about our uses. Often, this gives rise to conceptual objects, images or drawings, which will nourish reflection. I went a little further by offering a working prototype. In this case, the strange aspect of the EyeCam brings out questions relating to privacy, but also to our relationship to technologies, virtual agents on computers or in video games. I’m showing absurdly how far we could go, but I just don’t want a webcam looking at me, whether there is skin on my phone or my phone has fingers!

What were the reactions?

As much with my previous projects, the message did not get through very well, as this one was well received. It sparked interesting debates and discussions, on Facebook or Twitter.

It is true that at first glance, it is off-putting. Human-machine hybridization is a bit scary.

It’s a little paradoxical because we are sold this hybridization a lot, through android robots for example, by explaining to us that it will be great. But when you take a small device and make it a little human, all of a sudden it scares you. In this regard, there is a telling anecdote. I programmed several EyeCam behaviors, including the tracking facial. When the camera frames a person, it tries to follow it. However, during the development of this function, I reversed the axes by mistake. Suddenly, the eye tried to look away from me! It made me very weird. I had the feeling that my webcam didn’t want to look at me, was rejecting me.

Do you think that we tend towards that, towards man-machines or machine-men?

Let’s say that we tend to trivialize and normalize the fact that our environment is filled with sensors. However, to take just this example, we recently learned that all audio data passing through Siri was sent to Apple and that people, literally, listened to the interactions and transcribed them without the users’ consent. We are so surrounded by such devices, cameras, microphones, that we do not allow ourselves to rethink or think how they should work. My project is a call to do it.

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