Page  00000094 Feeping Creatures Rodney Berry Proximity Pty Ltd Australia and ATR Media Integration and Communications Laboratory, Kyoto Japan Feeping Creatures is an interactive virtual world. It runs in real time on a Silicon Graphics 02 workstation. The inhabitants, called feeps, hold sequences of musical notes as their chromosomes. They mate according to how consonant or dissonant their partner is and their offspring inherit a mixture of each parent's note series. Rhythm represents energy flow in the system and is accumulated as feeps find food in their environment. MIDI is sent to a Kurzweil k2000 synthesiser which generates and spatialises the sound between four speakers. A wall-projected video image shows the participant's view of the 3D world as he or she navigates using a mouse. The participant's location in the world causes a virtual microphone to control the sound levels of creatures as they move nearer or further away. The work is an ongoing project intended to explore the shifting boundaries between animate and inanimate; technology and biology; science and art; complication and complexity. In pursuit of the elusive perpetual novelty engine, Feeping Creatures seeks to transcend point and click notions of multimedia in favour of something more fluid and immersive - an aesthetic of systems and processes instead of objects and images. In 'Embracing Humanity', the computer becomes a mirror of the mind-asmachine. Is this mechanical part of us somehow separate from our essential humanity? Or does our self extend into the tools and symbols we employ? While some of us eagerly await the coming of the cyborg, our symbolic and material culture may have found a life of its own, using our language and media as means of reproduction, vectors of infection. What's that song in your head that just will not go away? i. Feeping Creatures is an interactive virtual world. It was developed over the last three years in collaboration with programmers Tom Mander, Brian Murray and Ben Ross of Proximity Pty.Ltd., a Sydney-based software company. The development was assisted financially by the Australia Council, the Australian Government' s arts funding body. As a guest researcherat ATR's Media Integration and Communications Laboratory in Kyoto. I am working to develop an interactive virtual world. Although it will not be a direct development on Feeping Creatures, the project will address similar compositional issues. 'When I was a student ofmusic, I grew dissatisfied with the notion of music as something which an audience sits passively and has done to it. I wanted to make music which could be traversed in a non-linear fashion as one would approach a piece of painting or sculpture. To this end, the last fifteen years have been spent producing musical works and sound environments that demand some level of engagement and interaction from the audience. These works have ranged from sculptural instruments to robotic and solar-poweredsound installations. This early dabbling in the realm of automata and systems led me to a fascination with biology. I found the natural world rich in metaphorical material for the composer and my attention turned to the nature of life itself. Increasingly the work began to ask, "What is the boundary between animate and inanimate?... To what extent can some of our artefacts be described as alive?". This led to many attempts to create in the audience a sense of being in the presenceof a living thing. 2. Feeping Creatures continues this line of artistic inquiry. The title is a spoonerism or wordplay on Creeping Features, the tendency among softwaredevelopers to cram so many fetures into a program that it becomes overweight and clumsy. The name was chosen to remind myself and the programming team to keep this piece as simple as possible. The ideal is to see how much variety and complexity can be generated with a bare minimum of complication. For my purposes, complexity is what emerges in nature as a result of interactions between essentially simple interdependent elements. Complication on the other hand, comes from human attempts to create the outer appearance of natural -94 - ICMC Proceedings 1999

Page  00000095 complexity. The latter approach tries to carve a tree out of a blank block of wood while the former simply plants a seed and waits. My own ultimate goal in this area would be to create a perpetual novelty engine. Left to its own devices, such a machine would go on foreverproducing new and unique output independent of the hand of its creator. In nature, the process of evolution is such an engine of variation, perpetually churning out diverse forms and behaviours. This is why I choose to exlpore the new disciplines of Artificial Life and Evolutionary Computing and their potential to bring life-like qualities into my own work. 3. The world ofFeeping Creatures is a flat green grid across which the inhabitants (feeps) and the observer move. The program resides in a Silicon Graphics 02 workstation. The feeps themselves are representedby simple cubes covered with moving textures. Food is representedby green triangular pyramids (trees) which grow up through the floor of the grid. The user of the program moves a mouse to steer a virtual camera and its attached virtual microphone across the grid. A projected video screen shows the view from the camerawhile loudspeakers play the sounds collected by the microphone. Each feep has a sequence of musical pitches which form its chromosome. These are mapped to MIDI note numbers which are sent to an external synthesiser (in this case, a Kurzweil K2000). When two feeps mate, portions of each parent's note list are passed on to their offspring to form a new chromosome or pitch series. At birth, afeep is randomly assigned a numerical value to determine its preference formating. Ifthis value is high, the newfeep will seek out partners that are, on average, musically consonant to its own note series. Ifthe value is low, its preference will be forthose more dissonant to itself. The degree of consonance of dissonance is found by first finding the difference between the first MIDI note numbers of each series, then the result is divided by 12 keeping the remainder (modulo 12). This returns a value of less than 12 which is then compared with a hierarchical table of intervals. The unison or octave would have a value of0 (most consonant), and the semitone a value of 11 (most dissonant). The remaining intervals fall between these extremes in an arbitrary order. The hierarchy could easily be changed and would also apply to microtonal even-tempered tuning systems. The process is then repeatedbetween every note in both lists beforeaveraging out the results. By tabling these results, the program can keep track of who will mate with whom in the world of the feeps. In musical terms, we are only dealing with average vertical harmonic relationships. A similar process could be used to find average horizontal relationships as well. For the moment, voice-leading and octave displacements are ignored (except forthe factthat young feeps transpose down a few octaves when they reach puberty!) in favourofa quick and dirty calculation of general trends in the population. I am looking fora similar method of dealing with rhythmic information. Different ways of ordering and evaluating proportions of durations and articulations are currently being explored. The challenge is always to find simple formulae which, although imprecise, give the system some general ideas about its own internal states. In Feeping Creatures, rhythm is analogous to energy flow through the system. Each item of food (tree) contains a duration value (how much time passes before the next note is played) and an articulation value (how long the note sustains once initiated). When afeep finds a tree and eats it, the tree's duration and articulation values are added to thefeep's rhythm list. Unlike the pitch list, which is fixed at birth, the rhythm list increases when the feep eats a tree and decreasesas it ages or fails to find food. When afeep's rhythm list falls below a given length, meaning its energy level is low, the feep dies and vanishes from the world. Because rhythm is dealt with separatelyto pitch, repeatedcells of melodic material cycle with rhythmic figures ofa different length. Different parts of the melody return with other parts of the rhythm in each subsequent cycle. These note/duration isorhythms manifest as short repeatedpatterns somewhat like bird songs. 4. The main program oversees all the interactions between the feeps, their positions and the position of the user. When a feepis within an arbitrary hearing range, the program assigns it a new MIDI channel and a timbre which corresponds to its visual texture. The texture is one of 8 animated texture movies which are mapped onto the cubic shapes. As a feepcomes nearerto the microphone, its MIDI volume increases causing it to become louder. The program also uses MIDI to adjust each feep's location between left and right, front and back of the four loudspeakers. This is achieved by making a -synthesiser voice consisting of two layers. One layer is assigned to the front left and right speaker pair ICMC Proceedings 1999 -95 -

Page  00000096 and the other to the rear pair. MIDI controller 13 is used to cross-fadebetween the front and rear output layers. Although cheap and crude, this method allows for up to 12 independently moving sound entities in the four-speaker field with no noticeable delay. A great deal of care was taken to integrate sound, visual and kinaesthetic information in this work. Much of our kinaesthetic sense involves a convergenceofcues from our senses of hearing, sight and touch. More broadly, this cross-modal cuing between differentmodes of perception is probably the most crucial factorinfluencing one's degree of immersion in a virtual world. The surround sound, coupled with the projected video and simple mouse interface, creates a sense of being drawn into the imaginary world of the feeps. The sound and visual outputs change to provide instant feedbackto the user as he or she moves the mouse. I believe that it is this integration of stimuli that makes it easier for the user to be absorbed into the work. 5 It has become obvious to me that this project will never be finished. I guess no world ever really is. The ecology badly needs a predator, afeep-lion to prowl the landscape devouringfeeps and incorporating their rhythms. The feep-lion would hunt by analysing the rhythmic content of its prey and perhaps the melodies as well (something like a virtual music critic). This would influencethe evolution of pitch series along more diverse lines than the simple sexual selection currently in operation. The environment itself will become more of a shaping force for evolution including terrain and weather as selective pressures on the evolving feeps. The goal is to create a complex system of deeply interdependent variables which continually modify each other in an endless game of Rock, Scissors, Paper, the elusive perpetual novelty engine. When I ponder the significanceofit all, as swivel-chair gods are inclined to do, I see a number of important things developing: I feelthat multimedia will soon abandon its current obsession with pointing and clicking one's way through a fixed database in favourofsomething more changing and fluid. Bigger storage media is not the answer (Feeping Creatures almost fits on a floppy disk). I see an emerging aesthetic ofsystems and processes growing to replace the dominant one of objects and images.This aesthetic also dominates my current work at ATR MICLab where images and sounds are merely byproducts of an underlying process. Computer musicians are no strangers to such an aesthetic. For many years, systems have been developed where the result can surprise the composer as much as the audience. In seeking to somehow author a new author, the composer is forcedto step outside of his or her self, the computer becomes our mirror. We become no longer god/creators but farmers or hunters of aesthetic experience. Our culture now appears to have alife of its own. Competing ideas or memes fight for our attention and evolve to form pop songs, religions, scientific theories and poems.They need human minds in which to inhabit and reproduce This makes me seriously question how much composers can claim authorship of the music they write. 6 In conclusion, I think it timely that this computer music conference take on a theme of Embracing Humanity. Sometimes I wonder if the computer is a mirror which allows me to see all the machine-like elements of my thought and bodily processes If I strip these away, will I be left with the part of me that is essentially human, or will I see all my physical and symbolic culture as an essential part of myself? As iour tools and technologies extend our bodies, amplify our senses and externalise our thoughts, will we turn our telescopes back upon ourselves? As the models we make increase in detail and sophistication, will we reach into and through the plane of the mirror to become a part of our own reflection? ICMC Proceedings 1999