One of 80 Teddy Ruxpin toys wired for speech in Hathaway's art piece.

One of 80 Teddy Ruxpin toys wired for speech in Hathaway’s art piece.

The new movie TED is an allegory for the struggle (at least the struggle of the male of the human species) to let go of the things we’re told are right and to learn to define our lives for ourselves.  The internet sensation TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design”) presents free inspirational and informational talks for free – a sort of intellectual clearinghouse of how our lives are evolving thanks in large part to our inventive and creative spirit.  What artist Sean Hathaway has done, however, is a quixotic blend of the two ideas.  His project is called Transformations, Emotional Deconstruction, and it’s based on the talking bear toy from the 80’s, Teddy Ruxpin.

The physical portion of this installation is 80 Teddy Ruxpin toys, all wired together into a matrix, which speak using voice synthesis.  They recite emotionally charged statements gathered from the Internet, and are accompanied by one of twenty-four musical vignettes that have been paired to the emotional content being spoken. Each vignette, representing subtle variants of human emotion, has been composed in such a way that the beginnings and ends of the short pieces will seamlessly dogleg in any possible configuration and stream endlessly as a unified whole. The installation is allowed to drift about freely through the emotional landscape being driven only by those who are contributing content to the piece whether unwittingly or consciously. As such the overall presentation of the piece can vary greatly based on external conditions such as seasons, world events and even time of day. The piece is essentially taking the instantaneous emotional pulse of the internet and this collective pulse, like a human pulse, varies over time.

Looking at a picture of it, it’s not very impressive.  Where it comes into its own is when you see the whole thing in action. Some of the things it says are poignant, some sad, some horrifying, some uplifting – but everything it says is relevant in some way to the human condition. Having these little toys express these human emotional states is a bizarre juxtaposition of inhuman versus human, and sharpens one’s awareness of the emotional texture of the social sphere that surrounds us all the time.  These are people’s souls, come from these eery mechanical mouths.

The Teddy Ruxpin toy was noteworthy for being the first toy of any sort with facial animation.  This was very primitive, and contained only one motor – but it was enough to move the mouth and eyes in response to sound.  It originally debuted in the 80’s, and was the best selling toy in 1985 and 1986.  It used an audio cassette, and performed limited animations of its face and eyes in response to whatever was on the tape.   It was expensive, originally retailing for $80 – the toy was revamped a couple of times, and the price came down.  The manufacturing rights changed hands three times after the original creator W.O.W. (Worlds of Wonder) went bankrupt in 1987, and now information on how to hack the toy and repurpose it is freely available.

Have a look.  What do you think?  Cool?  Or creepy?

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  • Home site forTransformations, Emotional Deconstruction
  • How to Hack a Teddy Ruxpin
  • Official web site for the TED Movie
  • Official site for TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design”)