04/19/2012 02:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Put on a Happy Face (Or If You Can't, Use Electricity)

Happy Halloween -- test 0, 2011

Daito Manabe + Satoru Higa, Rhizomatiks

Halloween is still seven months away, but this dreamy experiment with face tracking will make your day -- and not just on Halloween. Created by researcher and programmer Daito Manabe and Satoru Higa, Happy Halloween is among Manabe's most benign experiments with the human face. The artists used FaceTracker, a sophisticated but user-friendly face tracking system, to detect the movements of Manabe's face in real time, and superimpose onto it creatures and features that turn him into an ever-changing hybridized being. Face tracking isn't new technology, but this video uses it in a process-oriented, refreshingly experimental way, without becoming overly slick and focused on the end product. Manabe is filmed looking into the computer monitor as he tries on different expressions and watches the drawing in action. He really is "seeing himself sensing."

Virtual projections are tolerable, but we humans don't like people or things messing with the face. We may slap on make-up and experiment with new shades of color, get the occasional piercing to create some asymmetry or piss off a parent, kill off a wrinkle or three by injection or resurfacing or go under the knife for major topographical or tensile adjustments. But the latter surgeries are anything but experimental. They are a one-way journey, meant to last.

But there are researchers and artists who see the face as terra incognita, as a potential blank slate, a computer-mutable landscape or testing grounds for understanding the brain and communication. Say goodbye to the benign Happy Halloween and welcome to the X-Games of human research, where engineers, programmers and artists put forward their own bodies as sites of exploration, pushing the limits of the human apparatus and, in the process, delivering feedback on what it means to be human. Whether through surgical implants, new organs or intersections with computers, these researchers are on the cutting edge (truly cutting), considered by some to be extreme and by others, including this author, to be modern day explorers who talk the talk and walk the walk. Among them are University of Reading Professor Kevin Warwick, the first person to connect the nervous system to a computer; Australian performance artist Stelarc, the first person to have a third ear sewn onto his arm; French artist Orlan, whose medium is facial transformation through surgery; University of Toronto Professor Steve Mann, one of the first cyborgs, who has logged over thirty years of "seeing" through his own version of augmented reality; and Daito Manabe and his team of technologists and musicians, among the latest group of researcher to take electrocution to the level of an art form.

Electric Stimulus to the Face -- test4
Manabe: Direction, programming and composition
Supported by Masaki Teruoka and Katsuhiko Harada: device
Taeji Sawai: sound design

Inspired by the work of Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne (de Boulogne), a 19th century researcher who identified the specific nerves involved in human facial expressions through the use of electrical stimulation -- shock, essentially -- Daito and his collaborators began experimenting with facial electrical stimulation controlled by a computer, synchronizing individual or groups of faces into a mildly painful ballet that resembles various emotions, but is entirely devoid of them. In Face Visualizer, he syncs up four friends, Muryo Honma, Setsuya Kurotaki, Motoi Ishibashi and Seiichi Saito, to an electronic beat that sometimes makes brows and nostrils swing, and other times scrunches their features up into unbearable grimaces. Is it torture? Maybe a little bit. But it is also productive and fascinating research. "Instead of using technologies to achieve an ever 'higher-resolution' of illusionistic reality," Manabe explains that his work "aims at recovering the beauty of transient events through careful observations and exploration of the basic properties of body, computer and computer programming." Face Visualizer lays bare humanity's common denominator: that we are all really a sack of centrally controlled nerves and muscles and that emotion is a fleeting and inaccurate visual language. One person's electrical shock-induced snarl is another person's distain.


G.-B. Duchanne de Boulogne, Synoptic plate 4, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Almost 150 years separates the work of Duchenne de Boulogne and Daito Manabe.
Duchenne de Boulogne's grotesque but elucidating photos of people receiving electrical stimulation to the face, published in his monograph Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine, (1862) aimed to decode the relationship between prototypical human internal emotional states -- the soul, so he believed -- and facial expression by charting the neural pathways that triggered the muscles. He used five of his patients for the experiments, and one vacant-seeming toothless old man whose face he deemed blank, and he managed to map out over fifty distinct emotions and associated muscles. While Duchenne de Boulogne used the relatively new medium of photography to disseminate his ideas, Manabe uses the Internet. With the exception of the more polished Face Visualizer video, Manabe typically posts real time experiments where he's viewing and recording his own image in the computer monitor, which means that we're seeing him through the eye of the computer.

But don't try electrical stimulation at home. It's risky and it can have a negative effect on one's vision and breath. Manabe is restricted to undergoing electrocution a maximum of two times a month (he travels extensively and gives workshops. You can try this!). He also experiments with lasers, and LEDs, both less invasive than electrical stimulation. In UV Laser Fadeout an individual is photographed using an infrared camera. A laser then exposes the image, bit by bit, onto a phosphorescent screen. The completed image then slowly fades away. In Party in the Mouth Manabe programs sound and light into an electrical storm behind the teeth.

405nm laser fade out test 2
Daito Manabe + Motoi Ishibashi

Party in the Mouth (led in my mouth -test3)
Sound + light programming: Daito Manabe
LED device programming:Motoi Ishibashi

Manabe's threatened to using trans-cranial magnetic stimulation in the future -- stimulating the brain with pulsed magnetic fields. "I've wanted to experiment with this for a while," he said, "but meddling with the brain is pretty dangerous." If he does go for trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, face electrocution will soon seem like a gentle pastime.

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