Objects Talking Back: The Museum of Modern Art’s “Talk to Me”

We’ve come to expect today’s tools to offer us more than simple utility and function. Our personal devices must not only do the job at hand, but must also provide feedback along the way. Communication between man and machine has thus become the predominant factor in modern industrial design. This phenomenon, and the cutting-edge products and concepts that embody it, are the focus of a fascinating new MoMA exhibition called “Talk to Me, Design and the Communication between People and Objects.”

Talk To Me

While some objects like computers and cell phones inherently share information with/about their user, other devices present a more passive conversation. Some exhibits were practical, literal, and available for purchase today:  a GPS-enabled prayer mat that can precisely locate mecca or transforming plastic toys that change from a Japanese kanji character into the animal that character represents. Others were theoretical and artistic, like an animated visualization of a heated argument, represented by warping distortions of dishes and glassware at a dinner table (ed. note: check it out here, and find twelve more interesting examples).

Games are a clear fit for this project, and a variety of them were on display. Media Molecule’s Little Big Planet 2 was praised for its ability to both communicate with players and for giving them a robust toolset to clearly guide their peers through their own original in-game levels. Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death is a non-traditional video game where two players alternate narrating a story, improvising the twists and turns like a pixelated Choose Your Own Adventure. No two games are the same, and communication between the hero and narrator is the core of each short story.

Melding game technology with traditional art, one exhibit used a PS Eye camera to track a paraplegic  graffiti artist TEMPT1’s eye movements, feeding these digital spray can-strokes into a graphic design program. After the image was complete, it was then projected thirty feet wide onto a wall, allowing the artist to remotely tag his city from the confines of a hospital bed.  Discover his EyeWriter system at his website.

Tempt1's EyeWriter system

Non-video games were also represented, with a mind-bending card game called Helix. To play, you send a swab of your saliva to a lab, and in a few weeks you get a customized deck of cards that reflect strengths and weaknesses your real-life genetic attributes. “The deck allows players to become shadow versions of themselves, with all their genetic cards on the table, and in the game, as in reality, life depends on how the cards are played, not on which cards are dealt.” Currently in development, this game takes a literal approach to personalizing gameplay.

“Talk to Me” is a fantastic collection of modern tools, both for work and play, and the myriad ways they communicate with their users. To quote curator Paola Antonelli, “Whether openly and actively, or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us, and designers help us develop and improvise the dialogue.” The gaming industry depends on a conversation between hardware, software and human beings. Innovative designers and devices are helping spread this dialoge into more aspects of daily life, creating user interfaces that are increasingly intuitive and discreet.