Faster than a Speeding Sound?

May 15, 2013

Faster than a Speeding Sound?

I recently became aware of the twitter phenomenon linked to a minor earthquake on the East coast in 2011. Apparently people who felt it around the Washington, D.C. area tweeted about the earthquake. This tweet was read by folks in New York who felt the earthquake up to 30 seconds later.

In 2009 I had a similar experience that was quite eye opening as to real time interactivity possibilities. Working on Traversal, a piece with John Fillwalk at the Ball State University Institute for Digital Intermedia Art, we decided to provide allow avatars in Second Life to interact with the carillon in the Schafer Bell Tower on BSU's campus. To do this, we made structures in Second Life that you could touch, walk on, bump into that would directly play the tower. To give aural feedback, I installed a microphone and a server computer up in the belltower to stream audio directly into Second Life so that everyone could hear what was happening.

Unfortunately, permission to use Faneuil Hall for the Boston CyberArts festival fell through only a couple weeks before the festival, however we were still able to have a virtual presence and allow people at the festival, and all over the world, to play the bell tower at Ball State.

This is where things get interesting.

While testing for the event, and then in performance, I ran into the delay issue. We would test the carillon at the base of the tower and across the quad which put quite a distance between the listener/performer and the instrument. It was enough that the delay between playing a note and hearing the note could be anywhere between a quarter of a second and a whole second.

However, the delay between the microphone up in the tower and the direct audio stream into second life was incredibly short. This meant that anyone with a decent internet connection heard the bell tower playing before people who were physically located down in the quad. As an extension of that, Second Life avatars had a more responsive performance experience when playing the instrument than those located on site!!!

It was this experience that made me reconsider my assumption that telematic performance was not feasible. We are still at a difficult place in regards to making a quality experience in performing over long distances, but the gap between here and there is getting much shorter!