Are we there yet?

I recently went to see (or, I suppose, hear) a new sound exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco called “Are We There Yet?”, which will be on display until July. This exhibit is, in a word, cool. I walked into an architecturally beautiful room and heard different voices reading questions, sometimes overlapping and sometimes complementing each other. Just as cool as the aesthetic experience, though, is the visual tracking system that UC Berkeley engineers developed to give every participant a unique experience. The combination of cutting edge sound equipment with cleverly engineered computer tracking allows the voices to seemingly follow a viewer throughout the room.

The questioning voices of the exhibit are intended to invoke the practice of questioning within the Jewish faith. The engineers who designed the technical scaffolding to achieve this vision also started with a question. “How do you accurately tell the difference between the sun’s reflection on the floor and a person’s bright white shirt, if you’re a computer?” asks UC Berkeley Electrical Engineering graduate student Andrew Godbehere. As he explains it, his tracking system is kind of like Watson, the computer that recently won Jeopardy. “Anomalies in an image are identified as possible objects of interest, which are then tracked frame-by-frame using statistical methods to predict the object’s motion,” says Godbehere. Once the computer identifies an object that could be a moving person, the system uses a confidence model to determine the likelihood the object is a person. The program is adaptive, and will continue to improve as the exhibit is open.

The engineers responsible for this innovation answered another question: how do you create art that relies on technology but is not overwhelmed by it? One of the most striking aspects of this sound exhibit is that the viewer doesn’t realize how integral technology is. As Godbehere puts it, “The hard work of the computer can be taken for granted, and the space itself, the beautiful architecture of Daniel Libeskind, comes alive.” I highly recommend seeing this fascinating piece of artwork from an unlikely place, the UC Berkeley College of Engineering.

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