'Talk to Me': In conversation with objects (photos)

Muttering hats, talking trees, and robots that rely on strangers to get where they're going. An eclectic new MoMA exhibit in New York provokes viewers to ponder the ways we communicate with objects.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
Leslie Katz
1 of 13 Scott Rudd

Visitors to installation

What informs design these days? Certainly, utility and aesthetics top the list of considerations, but so, increasingly, does an object's ability to actively or subliminally communicate, provoke, and inform.

From now through November 7 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the exhibit "Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects" explores that complex conversation through an eclectic array of almost 200 projects, some conceptual, others practical and already in use.

Visitors will see everything from a building skinned in a QR code to a singing chair; a device that records prayers and sends them via satellite to a database that catalogs them; and an artificial biological clock that collates data from doctors, therapists, and financial advisers to tell a modern working woman when she should try to have a baby.

The exhibit is loosely divided into six sections according to who or what is doing the talking. Scroll through our gallery to get a sense of the objects on display, and the manifold ways today's objects are getting in on the cultural conversation.

2 of 13 Rhian Owens

Avatar Machine

What if you could bring your WoW character right off your screen and into the real world? That's the idea behind Mark Owens' 2008 Avatar Machine, made up of a full-body suit, a camera mounted behind the head, and virtual-reality goggles.

Owens wondered whether wearing his device might lead users to bring gaming behaviors into real life, so in a sort of sci-fi-meets-the-streets experiment, he let it loose in London's Hyde Park.

He observed that some people wearing the Avatar Machine did indeed begin to take bigger steps and swing their arms just like video game characters would and that the bemused response from onlookers reinforced the wearers' sense of estrangement and detachment.

As far as we know, the Avatar Machine-wearing wanderers did not do anything like cast Acid Breath on random passersby.

3 of 13 Interaction Research Studio, Goldsmiths University of London, U.K.

Prayer Companion

If nuns in an insular monastery should feel cut off from the pressing issues of the day that need their prayers, they can turn to the Prayer Companion, which subtly scrolls a ticker tape of issues across the top of a dot-matrix display.

The Poor Clare Sisters living at a monastery in York, U.K., tell the creators of the one-of-its-kind gadget that "it has been valuable in keeping [our] prayers pertinent." The Prayer Companion, which the nuns call "Goldie," scrolls news, as well as the feelings and experiences of anonymous strangers whose blog entries are aggregated by the Web site We Feel Fine.

4 of 13 Soner Ozenc

El Sajjadah

In another religious-themed display, U.K. design studio Soner Ozenc created El Sajjadah, a prayer rug that points the praying person in the direction of Mecca via a compass module that connects with electroluminescent prints on the rug's surface. The pattern on the carpet grows brighter and brighter as the rug is turned in the right direction.
5 of 13 Chris Woebken

Animal Superpowers: Ant and Giraffe

Wearing an animal costume for Halloween is one thing for kids. Wearing a costume that attempts to approximate the experience of being an animal is another one altogether. German artist Chris Woebken and Japanese artist Kenichi Okada designed Animal Superpowers: Ant and Giraffe as "experiential sensory enhancements" that let kids experience the world as if they were ants or giraffes.

The ant getup (pictured) includes gloves that magnify minuscule surface details to 50 times their regular size and transmit the images to the accompanying fiberglass helmet. The giraffe device raises the wearer's line of sight, giving the child the physical perspective of an adult, and also deepens the wearer's voice, presumably to sound more giraffelike.

The artists said they designed the prototypes in response to children's curiosity but see them more broadly as a mechanism for expanding the limits of human interaction with the world.

6 of 13 Alex Metcalf

Tree Listening

Alex Metcalf's Tree Listening project also provides a glimpse into nature from nature's perspective.

In spots around the United Kingdom, Metcalf placed a solar-powered listening device on a tree trunk and linked it to an amplifier connected to a series of headphones hanging from the tree's branches.

Through the headphones, passersby can listen to the tree's inner soundscape--"a quiet popping sound," Metcalf says, that's produced by the water passing through the xylem cells, along with "a deep rumbling sound" in the background, produced by the tree's movements.

7 of 13 Tuur Van Balen

Artificial Biological Clock

Israeli artist Revital Cohen tackles the topic of modern reproductive technology with her Artificial Biological Clock. Cohen says the pressures of modern life, particularly those related to career, are impacting today's women by "distorting the body's reproductive signals" and distancing women from their natural biological rhythms.

The clock would collate data via an online service from a woman's doctor, therapist, and bank manager. Once these observers ascertain that the time is right, the clock, made of glass, resin, nickel-plated brass, and electronics, lets the woman know she's ready to have a child.

8 of 13 Design Incubation Centre/National University of Singapore

Touch Hear

Readers know that stopping to look up a word in the dictionary in the middle of an engrossing paragraph can seriously disrupt narrative flow. Touch Hear out of Singapore would require only the scanning of an odd-looking finger implant over a word or phrase to bring up related information and broadcast it into a small device attached near the ear.

The text-to-speech system and network receiver are just a concept for now, and will likely remain so until people get over their discomfort with having their fingers surgically tricked out. It is, however, one of a number of provocative projects in the exhibit that explore the way technology can enhance everyday activities.

9 of 13 Golfstromen and Coen Rens

Gentrification Battlefield

Some projects in "Talk to Me" establish a practical or emotional connection between the users and entities such as cities and government institutions.

In the game Gentrification Battlefield, players can either be Timo, a hipster driving a Volkswagen van, or Sjaan, a longtime elderly resident in the real-life Dutch neighborhood of Amsterdam-Noord threatened with eviction.

By presenting the process of gentrification as a real battle, the game attempts to provide insight into the political and social complexities surrounding the issue. Design firm Golfstromen is planning to turn the concept into a real game. Hopefully, it will keep the retro aesthetic of a first-generation PlayStation game that's reflected in the trailer.

10 of 13 Kate Hartman

Muttering Hat

Kate Hartman's Muttering Hat, one of the more conceptual pieces in MoMA's "Talk to Me," puts mental noise into physical form with "muttering balls" that can be placed on one's ears, shared with others, or left dangling to speak into the world. So what's this wearer thinking?
11 of 13 Yann Le Coroller

Talking Carl

Yann Le Coroller's Talking Carl greets visitors at the entrance of "Talk to Me." It's an iPhone and iPad app whose star, a box-shaped creature, responds to sound and touch by getting ticklish and jumpy, and repeats what visitors say in a high-pitched voice. Each object in the exhibition has its own hashtag and a QR code that lets visitors bookmark it and access more information on the spot, or later, on the exhibition's Web site.
12 of 13 Mike Thompson

Wifi Dowsing Rod

Mike Thompson's forked Wifi Dowsing Rod is a twist on the divining rod of yore that was used to locate underground water sources, buried metals, gemstones, and oil. The modern counterpart seeks out and indicates the strength of unseen wireless signals, and, with its nod to the past, is supposed to provide comfort to those who might not yet be too comfortable with modern technology.
13 of 13 Kacie Kinzer


In another experiment that examines the interplay between strangers and randomly appearing objects, New York interactive designer Kacie Kinzer designed her motorized cardboard Tweenbots to rely on passersby to get where they are going.

In the Tweenbots' trips to New York City’s Washington Square Park, "every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole," Kinzer observed, "some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal."

She followed the interactions via a video camera hidden in her purse and noticed that people engaged directly with the Tweenbots and were also willing to talk to other strangers when it seemed the robot might be danger of, say, heading into traffic.

The Tweenbots will roam MoMA at specially announced times during the exhibition.

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