If your workspace has seemed a bit shoutier than usual in the last few days, you might have Nicole He to blame. The Brooklyn-based programmer and technologist is the creator of ENHANCE.COMPUTER, an online “cyberpunk game” that recalls the futuristic voice-command sleuth-machines found in films like Blade Runner: By shouting out directives like “MOVE DOWN!,” “MOVE LEFT!,” and especially “ENHANCE!,” you can zoom in on a picture, find a hidden code, and win…well, not much, save for the satisfaction of completely baffling the person sitting next to you. “It’s a game that makes people perform—and people are playing in their offices, in front of their coworkers,” says He, 29. And it’s a totally different game if other people are watching you do it, because, ideally, you have to yell.”
A freelance creative technologist at Google Creative Lab, He spent about three weeks putting together ENHANCE.COMPUTER, which was made in collaboration with designer Barron Webster. The set-up is relatively simple: A tiny code is hidden in one of about 50 randomly generated photos; you have one minute to locate the code, which requires you to bark orders to your laptop at an increasingly frantic clip. It’s a tongue-in-cheek realization of two technologies that have been promised to TV and movie viewers for years: Artificial-intelligence systems that understand all of our spoken directives, and the impossibly blur-free zoom-ins that have fueled detective shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He’s game was intended as an affectionate look at “the reality of this technology as it exists now, as opposed to the techno-utopian ideal,” she says from Melbourne, where ENHANCE.COMPUTER was part of a recent experimental-game exhibition. “I also thought it would be really funny.”
Much of He’s previous work finds her approaching technology with a mix of affectionate skepticism and humor: True Love Tinder Robot, which gauges users’ hand-sweat levels to determine whether to swipe left or right; and Soylent Dick features a faux-phallus (made out of the faux-meal) that …let’s just say responds whenever users type in a bit of soylent praise. “I’m interested in the ideas like, ‘What is this technology actually doing for us?’ ‘How is it broken?,” she says. “They’re critiques of technology. But at the same time, I’m an optimist who’s loving technology.”
He grew up in Cupertino, California, where the local tech-culture proved to be a huge influence in her decision not to go into tech. “It seemed really boring, like you were just in front of a computer each day,” she says. Instead, she moved to New York City to study journalism, which led to a community-management job at Kickstarter. “I got to meet a lot of creative people doing projects. That’s where I had this feeling of, ‘I want to make some stuff. I just don’t know what it is.’”
Eventually, she wound up at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, where she worked on projects like Unfamiliar Cat Petting Simulator. And now, He hopes ENHANCE.COMPUTER will remind users that voice-recognition technology is no longer a mere sci-fi trope, and that its applications go beyond Alexa or Siri. “I want people to use it for more stuff,” she says. “These platforms are being used for customer-service chatbot things, but people haven’t done too many really creative things with it.” For now, we’ll have to make do with games like ENHANCE.COMPUTER, which recently received a de facto endorsement from cyberpunk sire William Gibson, who retweeted He’s announcement. That’s one way to make sure awareness of your creation is…ENHANCED.
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