Alex Rothera uses audio, video, and AI to create an interactive orchestra of yawns
Yawning, much like laughing, can be contagious. But what if a computer could make you yawn? In his project The Yawn Chorus, Alex Rothera and his team find out if it's possible.
- 19 August 2021
- Daniel Milroy Maher
“There is something so beautiful about the yawn,” says designer Alex Rothera. “Research shows that yawns are related to empathy, so you yawn when you're comfortable with someone and it’s almost as if you are connecting with them and showing them that you’re in the same head space.” Created for The Festival of Curiosity in Dublin, Alex’s project The Yawn Chorus explores the phenomenon of the contagious yawn using a combination of music, video, and an audio generative instrument to create an immersive installation. The result is an experiment that takes the essence of the famous Skype Laughter Chain and turns it up a notch using the impressive capabilities of AI.
Working alongside designer and musician Chris Thompson, who collected a range of pre-recorded yawns and transformed them into a single track, Alex then created, with the help of artist and engineer Chris Baker, an ever-changing symphony of yawns composed of both the pre-recorded ones and new ones that are captured live from viewers who react to the installation. Facial recognition software detects “if a person watching the footage yawns” and “captures the yawn and adds it to the orchestra as an instrument,” he explains. “As the piece progresses, it becomes more complex in evoking and recording yawns. Viewers can watch as the AI musician moves from a one-computer band to a thousand-strong orchestra of yawns.”
To encourage yawns, viewers engaging with the installation are presented with a range of meditative scenes, such as curtains blowing in the wind, Chinese cat souvenirs pawing at the air, and a boat sitting in a wake, as well as shots of others yawning, that create a relaxed setting in which they are able to feel comfortable and vulnerable. “It interested us to think about a human-computer-human contagious loop. We thought it would be fun to see if we could create this “infinite yawning loop” between people and computers using AI, in a biohacking-esque way,” says Alex. “When we started testing, it scared the shit out of me that it actually worked.”
This aspect of the project forms another, slightly deeper area of exploration for the team – the fear of AI. Alex explains that these techniques tap into strategies used by big social media companies to manipulate their users, except here the motivation is innocent. “We turn the digital knobs to make music and more yawns and as a guest you’ve opted into it by sitting down and seeing if we can get you to yawn involuntarily,” he says. “But with social media companies – as pointed out in documentaries like The Social Dilemma – they can use AI and infinitely more complex knobs to control how you're feeling, consuming, and shopping – it’s no longer a silly yawn in a gallery."
Looking forward, Alex says that, though they have already created hundreds of orchestras using the system, he hopes to develop a second version online where thousands of people are recorded at home yawning while watching the video. “I think there would be beauty in connecting people across the world through such an empathetic gesture.”
Alex Rothera: The Yawn Chorus (Copyright © Alex Rothera, 2021)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.