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angles of incidence (works): n-cha(n)t
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Background-Computer Voices | Speaking Machines
by HorizonZero editors

David Rokeby's original n-cha(n)t installation consists of seven computers designed to engage in conversations with gallery visitors -- and each other. Each machine has a screen display, a microphone with voice recognition software, and is linked to the other machines through a network. On each computer screen a human ear is depicted in a variable state of "listening". As Rokeby explains in his artist's statement, "The ears show the state of receptivity of each system. When the system is ready to listen, a listening ear is shown on the screen. If the system hears a sound, it cups its ear to concentrate. When 'thinking', a finger is pressed into the ear. If the system feels overstimulated, it covers its ear with a hand to indicate its unwillingness to listen."

n-cha(n)t is essentially a community of machines equipped with a system that Rokeby developed for an earlier installation called The Giver of Names. In that installation, a camera observes random physical objects placed on a pedestal. A computer then analyzes the image it sees (noting variables like shape, size, colour and texture), and then attempts to describe the object through sentences which, though composed in grammatically-correct English or French, usually end up sounding like surreal alien poetry.

The Giver of Names (literally a machine that gives objects names) can also be programmed to respond in a similar way to words typed on a keyboard or spoken into a microphone. The system "listens" to the input words, associates these with other words it "knows", and then responds with a stream of language wherein the recent stimuli form the dominant themes.

In the n-cha(n)t version of this system, each computer listens and responds to words spoken by gallery visitors. But the machines are also designed to speak through a network to each other. When a machine receives input from a human voice, it communicates that input to other machines, influencing their "states of mind", associations, and gravitating toward similar themes until they finally wind up chanting a phrase in unison. David Rokeby's n-cha(n)t was originally commissioned by The Banff Centre for the Arts for the exhibition Computer Voices / Speaking Machines (2001) at the Walter Philips Gallery. The installation subsequently won the prestigious Golden Nica for Interactive Art at Austria's Prix Ars Electronica 2002 festival.

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