It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Camera Man!

Camera-helmeted human is the star of an art project that addresses the question of whether technology is dehumanizing people's interactions.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
  • Ed was a member of the CNET crew that won a National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors for general excellence online. He's also edited pieces that've nabbed prizes from the Society of Professional Journalists and others.
Edward Moyer
3 min read

Shuttered away. Screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

Wow, check out that guy in the bizarre helmet that looks like a camera. What's the deal?

  1. He's giving his Halloween costume -- Instagram Man -- a very early test run.
  2. He's the inventor of the digicam, and an old, film-using SLR has taken its revenge by assimilating him.
  3. Don't be a wiseacre, this is art.

If you chose No. 3, you're absolutely right (and we apologize for being a wiseacre).

"Touchy" (see video embedded below) is an art project by Eric Siu -- an MFA graduate of UCLA's Department of Design Media Arts, and a Hong Kong-based new-media artist -- and beneath its playful surface it's actually quite serious.

The fellow wearing the helmet is blind, you see, until someone touches him and causes the camera's shutters to open. If the touch is maintained for 10 seconds, the human camera takes a picture, which is displayed on the back of the helmet.

According to a Siu, the project is a commentary on how social networking, texting, and the like are killing off old-fashioned, flesh-and-blood human contact and "dehumanizing physical communication." Such technologies, Siu writes on the project's Web site, may, to a certain extent, even generate extreme social anxiety such as that "experienced in the 'Hikikomori' and 'otaku' cultures in Japan." Touchy, Siu continues, "criticizes this phenomenon and suggests a solution by transforming the human being into a social device: a camera."

One might wonder how turning someone into a machine sends a message about greater humanity. But if you're trying to reach (or generate discussion about) shut-ins who largely limit themselves to interactions with machines (or machine-generated versions of people), then perhaps a fantasy such as Siu's is a good way to do it. In one sense, Touchy might represent a comfortable intermediate step from living such a machine-based existence to shedding the machines and re-entering the physical world.

"Metaphorically," Siu writes, "Touchy lives in an isolating cage built by the experience of total darkness, as if he is encountering the same sensuous withdrawal as some social disorder patients have. Your effortless touch is an action of giving vision and taking photos, which heals the anxiety and generates a playful interaction that invites people to have fun..."

Siu further explains his choice of a camera, saying that it's "a known tool for sharing memories, valuable moments, enjoyment, emotions, beauty, and so forth." And the camera idea also helps emphasize the notion that we're all one. Siu mentions the expression "the eyes are the windows of the soul," and he says, "Isn't it a lyrical irony that gazing into another's eyes for 10 seconds gives life to your self-portrait?"

(It's not clear from the Touchy site if the project -- a collaboration with the Ishikawa Oku Laboratory at the University of Tokyo -- will be given a public life beyond the video and, perhaps, exhibitions. Will there be public performances or interactions of some kind? We've sent Siu an e-mail for clarification, and we'll update this post when we know more.)

(Via Gizmodiva)