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ICT’s Andrew Gordon Brings Seminal 1940’s Social Science Experiment Online

March 26, 2014

Andrew Gordon studies stories. He leads the Narrative Group at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies where his research is devoted to getting computers to be able to read and generate stories and to use the knowledge in stories in order to become more intelligent.

Gordon is also a professor in the USC Department of Computer Science and his newest project involves reimagining a 70-year-old social science experiment for the digital age.

In 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel created a simple animated film depicting the motion of two triangles and a circle as they moved in and around a box that alternated between being opened or closed. Heider and Simmel asked people to describe what they saw. Now a classic work in the field of social psychology, the subjects responded with creative narratives that ascribed human-like goals, plans, beliefs, and emotions to the moving objects. Popular themes included romantic relationships and prison breaks.

In short, viewers of the Heider-Simmel film treated the shapes as if they were people.

Can Computers Tell Stories? from USC Viterbi on Vimeo.

Gordon wondered if a computer could be taught to do the same thing. Thus, the Heider-Simmel Interactive Theater was born. It is a web-based application that allows people to make their own movies and write their own stories using triangles. A companion site is called Triangle Charades. Here, people can make their own animations of different actions, and guess the intended actions in other people’s animations.

“This research is trying to solve fundamental problem in human computer interaction,” said Gordon. “The end goal is to collect enough data to test and train our systems to recognize actions and narrative so that computers will tell stories that are as creative and compelling as the ones people are telling.”

In order to inform the computer, Gordon is hoping to collect large amounts of data so that the system can be tested and trained to recognize actions and motivations. Anyone interested in participating as a study subject and content creator can follow the links below.

Learn more about the projects here.
Try the Heider-Simmel Interactive Theater online here.
Play Triangle Charades online here.

This Office of Naval Research-funded effort is a collaboration with Jerry R. Hobbs of the USC Information Sciences Institute and Louis-Philippe Morency and Melissa Roemmele at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies.