Eyecam, an uncanny anthropomorphic webcam to explore our relationships with technology

[You have to watch the 2:11 minute video to really appreciate Marc Teyssier’s anthropomorphic webcam, which purposely evokes uncanny valley responses to prompt us to think about a variety of issues related to our relationships with technology. This story is from IGN and much more information, including the video, photos and a link to a CHI 2021 paper, are available on Teyssier’s website. –Matthew]

This Webcam Looks Like a Human Eye and Even Blinks at You

A webcam with a mind, err, eye of its own.

By Wesley LeBlanc
April 14, 2021

A new prototype webcam looks like a realistic human eye, complete with its own eyebrow – and it blinks, too.

If that’s not enough, it’s also capable of looking around and acting out on its own accord. It can express emotions such as anger and sadness, and it can check out what else is going on in the room if it doesn’t feel like looking at you anymore. It’s obviously an uncanny sight to see sitting on a monitor and working as a webcam, but according to the person behind the Eyecam, Marc Teyssier, there’s more to it than that.

Watch the trailer [in the original story or via YouTube] for a full look at the anthropomorphic webcam.

“Webcams…are in front of us, looking at us constantly,” Teyssier told IGN. “We are familiar with the human eye, and a webcam and a human eye share a purpose: they ‘see,’ but in contrast to the webcam, the human eye is expressive. Human eyes can express happiness, anger, boredom, or fatigue. The anthropomorphic features [of the Eyecam] are really strong and adding flesh (and eyebrows) makes the device much more expressive. I believe that if every device’s working state and functions were explicit, it would better for end-users [and] privacy issues will be highlighted.”

Privacy, and how much of it users actually have, is what’s behind Teyssier’s Eyecam. Teyssier isn’t making a statement on privacy, however – he wants Eyecam to help users arrive at their own conclusions. His site describes the purpose of the project as a way to, “speculate on the past, present, and future of technology.”

The site talks about the way modern “sensing devices,” which is what he calls the Eyecam and other devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home products, have blended into our daily lives, be it surveillance cameras on the street or smart home products in our houses. Teyssier says these devices blend in so well that, “we are unaware of their presence and stop questioning how they look, sense, and act.” His goal with the Eyecam is to prove a prototype design of a sensing device that explicitly looks around, senses things, and acts on them.

“I don’t plan to sell Eyecam as a product,” Teyssier said. “It is a ‘Speculative Design’ object, made to reflect on our relationship with webcams and sensing devices. However, it is open-source and open-hardware so that everybody can make one. I want the people to experience it. Having an eye looking at you all day long is very weird and I have to admit: uncanny. I hope that people can try it and see it for themselves.”

Teyssier’s website highlights the importance of rethinking, “the relationship between humans and sensing devices through novel design.” The Eyecam is one example of the novel design Teyssier’s site talks about.

“This opens up a debate on plausible and implausible ways future sensing devices might be designed,” the site reads. “Should the device be transparent and invisible to the user? What are the next social and ethical challenges of IoT (Internet of Things)? What is the balance between mediation and intrusion? How can we design for the right amount of agency to smart sensing devices? How can we reinforce privacy and show the user they are being watched?”

Those are just some of the questions Teyssier sees in the wider debate of sensing device privacy.

The Eyecam can’t be outright purchased, but Teyssier said the individual components needed to make it can be purchased for around $25. Inside the device is, “six servo-motors positioned optimally to reproduce the different eye muscles,” according to Teyssier’s site, and the motors inside can replicate the different motions of the human eyes, including the ways the eyelids and eyebrows move.

“Behind the device, there are some computer vision algorithms and the device has some autonomy,” Teyssier said. “The device can switch between modes of operation from a utilitarian one (e.g. look at the face in front of you) to more autonomous (e.g. the device might want to go to sleep after 10 p.m. because…why not?).”

One of the starting points for the design of the Eyecam originated from video calls. Teyssier said people don’t always look at the face of the people in front of them on screen. Sometimes people look at what’s behind the person they’re talking to, or what else might be in the room, and Eyecam is designed to mimic that behavior.

It also goes beyond just mimicking an eye. Teyssier says the Eyecam can be pet like an animal – he loves to pet the eyebrow – and it can behave entirely on its own. If you leave it alone, it might become sad. If you procrastinate too much by watching YouTube videos instead of using it, Eyecam could become angry.

Everything you need to know about building your own Eyecam can be found [on GitHub] here.

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