Embodied Emergence: Distributed Computing Manipulatives

David Bouchard

Distributed systems and the emergent properties that can arise out of simple localized interactions have fascinated scientists and artists alike for the last century. They challenge the notions of control and creativity, producing outcomes that can be beautiful, engaging and surprising at the same time.

This paper will discuss how simple tangible nodes can enable playful and creative experimentation with the concept of emergent behavior. Specifically, it will address how embodied interaction scenarios involving parallel systems can be implemented and how a range of sensing and actuating possibilities can be leveraged to generate novel and engaging experiences for the end users. In particular, the use of sound will be explored as a medium for representation.

While extensive work has been done using computer simulations of such systems in fields like artificial life and generative art, their physically embodied counterparts are still in their infancy, in part due to the complexity of building and deployment.

This paper will ground its discussion of embodied distributed systems around a project called Sound Mites, a set of small blocks that alter their behavior according to nearby blocks, in an asynchronous fashion.

The blocks adhere to flat metallic surfaces using built-in magnets. Each block is equipped with a small speaker that generates a musical tone according to the state of its immediate neighbors and a simple set of rules. Blocks also glow to provide visual feedback on their current state. Finally, the blocks sense touch through a thin metal rim and can modify their state to reflect the interventions of viewers.

The blocks are fully independent from one another. Viewers can reconfigure the topology of the system in real-time by moving the blocks around and rearranging them, creating an ever-changing sound texture with unique qualities, revealed through the use of a multitude of sound sources physically distributed in space.

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