Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

D. Fox Harrell and His Phantasmal Media

Professor D. Harrell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an artist, scientist, and computer programmer rolled into one. Through the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory, Harrell has dedicated his work as an artist-scientist to link imagination with computation. “Fantastic stories, rich metaphors, social relationships, and even our senses of self are all rooted in the mind,” says Harrell. “As a cognitive scientist, I am interested in better understanding the mental processes underlying these imaginative phenomena.”

In one of his many projects, Harrell has managed to create a “computational psychoanalysis” through video games. In his game, Loss, Undersea, he turns the “aggression” that a typical desk-worker may experience into an interactive game where the player’s avatar transforms based on user input. The player uses different emotional actions to guide their avatar through the underwater narrative until the AI takes over and acts out independently. By the end of the game, the avatar could become unrecognizably mutated and aggressive or peaceful and docile, depending on the user.

For his projects, D. Fox Harrell uses “GRIOT,” an artificial intelligence system that he developed for his PhD dissertation. The GRIOT system is used to generate narratives that the user can interact with. In Living Liberia Fabric, the user creates a narrative for their character while the artificial intelligence outputs various forms of digital media. The user studies archives ranging from citizen testimonials to archival photographs. The project reflects the tragedy of the Liberian Civil War and supports the goal of peace.

“A Girl with Skin of Haints and Seraphs” is just one of Harrell’s interactive poems. Based on the user’s input, the GRIOT system outputs the next line of poetry. The poem generator was created in order to inspire critical thinking about stereotypes and identity.

Harrell stresses the importance of using artwork and design to support scientific progress. “I call my expressive computer systems ‘phantasmal media’ because of their ability to evoke mental imagery and transform new ideas,” describes Harrell. “The end result is the form of subjective computing, phantasmal media, that highlights the power of the human imagination.”

For more information about D. Fox Harrell’s work, visit his page at the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory’s website.

All quotes in this article are courtesy of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies publication In Media Res (Fall 2011 edition)

Image courtesy of Via Tsuji, used under CC BY 2.0 license.