Taking 10 Volts Straight to the Face

YouTube star plans to electrically copy expressions from one face to another

Daito Manabe is many things—a coder, a composer, a DJ and an artist. He’s also the star of one of the strangest science videos ever put on YouTube—the unpretentiously titled “electric stimulus to face -test3.”

The video, which has been watched over 1.2 million times, references everything from early internet-based interactive art projects to the classic face-shocking experiments of Dr. Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne, whose 19th century photographs of electrically stimulated faces were later appropriated by Darwin to illustrate his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Incredibly, “electric stimulus to face -test3” is merely a work in progress. Daito’s ultimate plans are even stranger and more wonderful than his original YouTube hit. Read on to find out what they are…

CM: What was your inspiration for this video? Were you familiar with the work of Duchenne, whose work with electrical stimulation of faces in the late 19th century resembles your experiment?

**DM: **I was initially inspired by the statement “we can make a fake smile by sending electric stimulation signals from a computer to the face, but NO ONE can make a real smile without human emotion.” This is from Mr. Teruoka who collaborates with me on making devices. [Ed. Note: A sincere smile, which involves both the mouth and the eyes, is difficult to fake, while fake smiles tend to involve only the mouth.]

The piece was also influenced by the work of the French researcher G.B. Duchenne, who wrote created the book Mecanisme de la physionomie humain (“The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression”). We also drew inspiration from the Austrian artist Stelarc’s “Ping body.”

Starting with these influences, I began to experiment with myoelectric sensors and low frequency pulse generators. My intention was to copy the expression of one face to another. The face visualizer video which is known on YouTube as “Electric Stimulus to Face test 3” is one of the first experiments of this project.

CM: At the beginning of the video, you take a deep breath. Is this because you are preparing yourself for the “performance?” Was the electric stimulus painful?

**DM: **Yes, the performance was painful, in part because the duration of this track was too long. So what you’re seeing at the beginning of the recording is me completing my mental preparation.

Before this video, I made many short face patterns without playing music, but this was the first time I played music while sending electrical stimulus to my face at the same time.

CM: How many times did you have to record this video in order to get it right?

**DM: **Actually this was the first time I attempted to record the video. While recording I simply used a mirror to check how my face moved.

CM: What is in the background of this video?

**DM: **This is my work space in Aoyama, a neighborhood of Tokyo. It’s part of a space called Rhizomatiks, which is a collective I founded two years ago with my partners. I usually work here when programming, composing music, etc.

CM: Have you ever performed this piece live?

**DM: **Yes, several times. I performed it at the Digital Art Festival ’08 in Tokyo, at the Youtube Live event, at Harajuku Performance + and at the Ars Electrica Center Opening Party.

CM: Was it difficult to adjust the stimulus so that it was strong enough to move your facial muscles, but not so strong as to be painful?

**DM: **It is really simple to adjust the intensity of the stimulus. I simply set the proper position and amplitude, which I calculated based solely on self-experimentation. In terms of pain, it depends on where I put an electrode. The most hardcore place to stick an electrode is around the eyes!

CM: What was the strength of the stimulus you administered?

**DM: **10v, 0.2mA

CM: How long, from when you first got the idea to do this, did it take you to create this video?

**DM: **The first time I sent an electrical stimulus to my face was five years ago in a class at art school, but I didn’t get the idea to play around with trying to copy facial expressions using the technology until I got my hands on a myoelectric sensor.