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Anthropomorphic webcam, eyecam

Ever wanted a webcam which looks like a human eye? No, us neither.

Image credit: Thorsten Mohr

Researchers from Saarland University in Germany have developed a prototype webcam which looks like a human eye and realistically imitates its movements. They hope that their uncanny model will provoke debates about human behaviour around potentially intrusive sensing devices.

The project was led by Dr Marc Teyssier, who came to the university’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab following his doctorate in anthropomorphic design. He is fully aware of the discomforting appearance of the 'Eyecam', which is inspired by critical design: an approach which aims to challenge assumptions about the role of products.

“The goal of our project is not to develop a 'better' design for cameras, but to spark a discussion,” he explained. “We want to draw attention to the fact that we are surrounded by sensing devices every day. That raises the question of how that affects us.”

By creating a webcam that draws attention to itself as a seeing device, the researchers hope to inspire questions about privacy, behaviour, and communication in a world increasingly filled with sensing devices and other potentially intrusive technologies.

Teyssier and his colleagues wanted to create a webcam which does not just have the appearance of a human eye but also imitates movements, including unconscious eye movements such as blinking or raising the eyebrow.

“With Eyecam, we are exploring the question of whether a technical device should reflect its function in its design,” added Dr Marion Koelle. “There are different ways of seeing, all of which have their own unique connotations, such as observing, recognising, watching, or even spying.

“Also, a camera designed as an eye can send non-verbal signals through facial expressions. This opens up a whole new layer of interaction that hasn’t existed in technical devices before.”

The Eyecam was created from a 3D-printed body equipped with six servo motors, which were connected to the eyebrows and eyeball. The skin was moulded from silicone and injected with hair implants for a human-like appearance. The alarming webcam can behave in different ways: it can act like a human observer, opening the eye and tracking the user with its gaze as they move; it can reflect the user’s tiredness, repeatedly shutting as the user sits in front of their screen late at night; and it can have the function of a pet, looking curiously around its surroundings and reacting with delight when its 'owner' enters the room.

The project also aims to explore how interfaces with properties of the human body may improve the interaction between humans and computers.

“Our application scenarios are fictional and are intended to encourage people to think about how we interact with technical devices today, but also in the future,” said Teyssier. “What is special is that we can experience and recreate our imagined scenarios with the help of a physically existing prototype.”

The group has published the blueprints for their device, hoping to reach as many people with their thought-provoking design as possible.

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