The Vertigo «data sofa» and the interactive video installation Big Sister were conceived by artist Elisabeth Eberle in collaboration with neuro-ophthalmologist Konrad Weber, who studies the eye-brain interface. The two works were developed based on scientific and diagnostic video material.
Videos recorded with infrared video glasses specially designed to measure the vestibulo-ocular reflex formed the starting point for these works. The vestibulo-ocular reflex is an inner-ear reflex related to balance, and is one of the fastest reflexes in the human body. It ensures spatial stabilization of the eyes when the head moves, like image stabilization on a video camera. That is why the test measures a person’s sense of balance in terms of the connection from the inner ear via the brain to the eyes. The glasses were developed by a team working with Konrad Weber at the University of Sydney and are now used all over the world in clinical diagnosis of balance disorders. Previously, patients had to undergo a very unpleasant 100-year-old procedure that involved irrigating the ears with warm and cold water to induce rotatory vertigo.
Once the video analyses have been evaluated, they are visualized as three-dimensional structures made up of aggregated data curves. An astrophysicist, an engineer, and various technicians were involved in producing the works shown here, which were created from the original diagnostic material.
For this installation, the data on the recorded eye movements, as visualized in three dimensions, were represented in material form using flexible foam with a colored plastic coating from the realm of medical technology. Visitors can experience the digital diagnostic abstraction of the balance reflex while sitting comfortably on the “data sofa,” as their own balance reflex comes into play in a real-world setting.
Despite the innumerable possibilities that 3D technology offers, the challenge was to find a viable method for producing a soft, furniture-like object that could be implemented realistically and affordably. The data collected and the three-dimensional realization are digital approximations, i.e., abstractions, superimposed in this object with material properties that make it possible to experience the abstract concept through our senses. Uneven areas or imperfections reveal the technical limitations of this conjunction.
The videos used here filmed the eye movements of healthy female test subjects, some of them wearing mascara which created recording artefacts, i.e., sources of diagnostic error. Weber’s eight-year-old daughter was one of the test participants. Although the test subjects sometimes moved during the recordings, for example turning around, the cameras affixed to the infrared glasses they wore suggest a static position; only the eye movements are recorded. Watching the static monitors in the exhibition, the extent to which our vantage point affects perception becomes evident.
The videos were programmed to track visitors, following their gaze in several directions, thus digitally perverting scientific recordings of human eye movements and conjuring up a sense of surveillance. A supposedly human counterpart that even closes its eyes when bored – for example when no one is standing in front of the monitor – becomes a virtual observer. Who is watching whom here?
Elisabeth Eberle, PD Dr. med. Konrad P. Weber, University Hospital Zurich, Vestibulo-Oculomotor Laboratory