If a co-worker was to spontaneously combust (à la Garth Marenghi's Darkplace) in your office, what you might expect to one day slough off the ceiling and slap atop your computer screen would be this anthropomorphic webcam. Though impressively lifelike in its movement and texture, the lump of “flesh” is actually a convincing piece of robotics that can blink, look in all directions, and even follow you around the room. Just what your morning video call meetings have been missing.
Coined the Eyecam, the uncanny piece of tech was developed by Marc Teyssier and his team at the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at Saarland University, Germany. “I have a history of making uncanny technologies that spark discussion and speculation,” Teyssier told IFLScience. “I previously worked on artificial human skin for smartphones and desktop, [and] a finger for smartphones that were somehow controversial – and I enjoyed reading the discussion.”
A quick peek at Teyssier’s oeuvre makes it easy to understand why his team's innovative technologies have sparked such colorful debate. The world isn’t quite ready for "slab-o-skin" phone cases or a device that can hold onto you while you hold onto it. The team’s latest output, the Eyecam, will be debuted at the 2021 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The design was based on a cast of Teyssier's actual eye, and luckily for fans of fleshy robots, the research is open access so you can find all the information you need to make your own here.
Far from a frivolous trip down the uncanny valley, the Eyecam was intended to act as an effective (if not a little creepy) reminder that, despite many of us living our lives in front of such cameras, most of the time we barely even notice them. Teyssier hopes the robotic cyclops will inspire conversations about our perceived privacy in an era of surveillance technology, by replacing passive devices with emotive ones that make it very obvious when they are watching you.
“Webcams are in front of us, looking at us, constantly,” Teyssier told IFLScience. “A webcam and a human eye share a purpose: they 'see'. But in contrast to the webcam, human eyes are expressive. Human eyes can express happiness, anger, boredom, or fatigue. They can look curious, distracted, or focused.
“The goal of this project is not to develop a 'better' design for cameras, but to spark a discussion and trigger reactions and reflections. We are surrounded by sensing devices, up to the point we are unaware of their presence and we stop questioning their form and how (or if) they work. This project highlights the privacy issues of sensing devices. Is it watching? Is it listening? Are you really sure?”
Well… are you?