The Centre for Metahuman Exploration

Everyday life in turn-of-the-Millennium America depends on information networks connecting people at remote locations for activities that were previously carried out in person, such as working, socializing and shopping. These information networks reflect a suburb/city model of urban planning that is itself decentralized and dependent on information networks for normal operation.

Between 1996-1999 a Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) based interdisciplinary project team called the Centre for Metahuman Exploration (CME), with specialists from Robotics, Interactive Art and Television used projects to address, explore, and comment on issues relating to decentralized life. Projects attempted to resolve isolation by allowing viewers to experience an event happening at a remote location through a combination of consumer-level information technology and telerobotics. CME called this process of remote interaction remote experience. CME defined remote experience as the art of using widely available and accessible information technology to allow people to experience a real event taking place at a remote location.


As the CME explored various modes of remote interaction, each experiment directed the project team towards resolving the viewer’s isolation by creating a scenario of remote intimacy and emotional connection. CME developed a method that allowed people to experience an emotional scenario at a far away location through the remote control of a robotically augmented human actor. CME’s term for this actor was the Cyborg Surrogate Self (CSS).

Work that lead to the creation of the CSS concept began with the creation of an interactive TV show that allowed viewers to remotely "torture" a living human in a TV studio by pushing buttons on their touch-tone telephones while encouraged by an on-air host in the style of the famous Stanley Milgram Psychology experiment of the 1960s. Pressing telephone buttons sent electric shocks into the arms and legs of the human subject (see fig. 1):


Fig 1: The Interactive Television Show

Six additional projects based on TV/telephone technologies and remotely controlled robots (telerobots) focused on a growing understanding of remote interaction that culminated in a "remote paradise" work called Project Paradise. Works leading to the production of Project Paradise included: Boundary Link, a telephone link/performance that linked a maximum security detention facility with an arts festival (see fig. 2):

Fig. 2: Boundary Link Installation View

Boundary Link Detail

The Inverse Human robotic exoskeleton (see fig.3) allowed for the remote control of a living human being through a touch-tone telephone:

Fig. 3: CME’s Robotic Exoskeleton

Absentee Ballot, an interactive voting game show that allowed TV viewers to remotely control an American voter during the 1996 American political election (see fig. 4):



Fig. 4: Absentee Ballot

Absentee Ballot Detail

Rover TV, which allowed TV viewers to use their phones to control the NASA/CMU Nomad Robotic Rover during its Atacama Desert Trek Field trials (see fig. 5):

Fig. 5: Rover TV

Rover TV Detail

Petting Zoo, which allowed viewers to remotely pet a living bunny rabbit through a robotically augmented actor and a TV/Telephone interface (see fig. 6):

Fig. 6: Petting Zoo

Petting Zoo Detail

And finally Project Paradise, the focus of this article. The context for this work encompasses current trends in academic media art, academic telerobotics research, and mass media culture. This context intersects with subjective experiences by members of the CME, integrating first-person observations of life within "the sprawl" – the decentralized sub/urban geographies of everyday life in which all activity depends increasingly on mediating technologies.

Project Paradise: The Wire Through Which Happiness Flows

The above projects resulted in the development of the Cyborg Surragate Self (CSS), a robotically augmented human that represents a user at a remote site where intimacy and emotional connection is to be conveyed. The CSS is a poetic response to the physical isolation of the suburban void, providing a human-machine surrogate who can transmit participants’ emotions and their desire to overcome loneliness to and from a remote location–one to which they would not otherwise have access. Through the CSS, participants attempt to confront and transform this isolation, bringing an altered emotional valence to mediated experience.

Our goal was to pre-package "paradise" much as corporate manufacturers pre-package other consumables, presenting them as ideal responses to people’s needs and desires: e.g., promising that a tube of toothpaste will not only provide you with what you need to clean your teeth, but will also enable you to join the hallowed ranks of the attractive and the loved. Unlike many consumer products, however, Project Paradise was not presented as a means of obtaining those personal qualities that are supposed to bring happiness; it was designed as a direct line to a mediated happy reality, bridging the gap between reality and that which people desire by bringing a remote erotic experience directly to participants.

Project Paradise Installation Description

Project Paradise consisted of two aluminum isolation booths and a cylindrical chamber connected by video and telephone cabling (see fig. 7). Each isolation booth contained the interface to Paradise in the form of a television and a telephone (see fig.8). The ringing telephone beckoned exhibit patrons to enter the booth; after answering the telephone, participants received a brief introduction and instructions. They then entered "Paradise," the cylindrical aluminum chamber located elsewhere in the installation, which contained a lush, plant-filled "garden of Eden" and two robotically-augmented but otherwise nude people: the Cyborg Adam and Eve (see fig.9 and 10). This "Paradise" could only be experienced through telepresence via the robotically augented human actors. Through these Cyborg Surrogate Selves, participants could touch the grass, the flowers, and the flesh.

Figure 7: Project Paradise Isolation Booths

Fig.8 Project Paradise installation view.

Like many of the works developed by the Centre for Metahuman Exploration, Project Paradise was conceptualized as an interactive television show that could be potentially deployed in any society where users have access to both televisions and telephones. However, in 1998 and 1999 Paradise was deployed in its gallery installation form, where TV/Telephone isolation booths replaced the homes of the sprawl, thus adapting the work for a gallery venue.

Fig. 9a: Adam


Fig. 9b: Eve

Discussion of Goals

The poetry of this work is to be found in the system CME devised for resolving a viewer’s isolation by creating a scenario of remote intimacy and emotional connection. This was a poetic response to the isolation of suburban sprawl and the mediated/simulated realities that accompany it. The "art" was the macroscopic form created through the willing participation of users in a machinic system that capitalized on basic human needs, creating planned actions through the presentation of limited options.

The more people try to escape the isolation created for them within the sprawl, the more they tend to depend on a nominally interactive technological system provided for the harvesting of their time and attention. In this way, the search for happiness plays into the goal of the information networks’ creators. CME created Paradise as a satire of this scenario, while also attempting to bring the nightmare to a new level, explicitly allowing people to freely choose only what CME wanted, as is usually implicitly the case in marketing. CME depended on the free will of the participants to control what they did. In other words, CME used a growing knowledge of the ways people were likely to direct their free will as a paradoxical means for controlling their actions.

Fig. 10: Adam and Eve in "The tank"

The Satire of Decentralized Pleasure Control

In many ways, this work was a satire of modern utopian fantasies informed by the principle that consumerism=freedom. People are sold a means to attain the image of freedom/happiness: products, lifestyles, government systems, ideologies and fashions are among the things marketed as means of attaining that freedom. Various images of freedom/happiness are conveyed via a phantasmagoric array of product commercials, political speeches and manifestos, all of which imply that certain predetermined choices must be made if one is to experience happiness. People consume products as a means of pursuing this ever-elusive state. Sometimes the image of freedom/happiness is a scantily-clad actor or actress on a Saturday afternoon beer commercial, or an SUV bouncing adventurously through a scene of great natural beauty. Sometimes, more simply and more subtly, it is the promise of security and a suitable human breeding sanctuary in a suburb that can only be reached through the choice of certain professions and lifestyles.

Exploiting Desire: Where Art Meets Marketing

Concretely, the basic principle of consumerism is that people will choose the one option among many that seems likely to make them the "happiest/freest." Furthermore, different people will usually make similar decisions if they are placed in similar situations. Perhaps, on a macro scale, a human placed within an isolated machinic system of limited options will behave just as predictably as a machine. Thus, in the same way that electrical current can be exploited for an engineer’s design, human quests for "paradise" can by exploited for an artist’s or marketer’s design.

In this case, CME discovered the factors that make people enjoy a system of remote interaction. In Project Paradise, CME employed these factors to make "a wire though which happiness flowed," "a coloring book that could be crawled into," "a Renaissance painting that was alive." Choosing a classic theme that depicted a time before complication, isolation, sin and technology, CME decided to create a prepackaged "Garden of Eden" for the consumer. However, unlike the classic myth, this garden does not contain any complicated choices about the future of humanity: ours is garden of Eden made safe for the consumer. Like a shopping mall, video game or amusement park, there is no real danger, no real choice, and most of all, no chance to fall.

View the Project Paradise video

For more information about CME projects, see

Project Paradise has been exhibited at: Siggraph 1998 in Orlando, Florida; Ars Electronica 1998 in Linz, Austria; Mir: Art in Space, December 1999 in Bolzano, Italy.

An appearance in Copenhagen, Denmark is planned for the Fall of 2001.


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