The space appeared bright and cozy: the perfect family living room, with a sofa, easy chairs, and a coffee table that held, among other things, an anthology of Mad magazines. Only the illumination didn’t come from the table lamps, and three of the walls were glass. A visitor’s remarks on the brightness of the camera lights set off disembodied chuckles. That response was what defined “The Laughing Room,” a weekend installation at the Cambridge Public Library.
The brainchild of Jonny Sun, a doctoral candidate at MIT and a researcher at Harvard’s metaLab, “The Laughing Room” was created with help from MIT Associate Professor of Literature Stephanie Frampton’s ARTificial Intelligence group. It was a two-campus immersive experience, designed to enlighten as well as entertain. The room in the Cambridge library, wired for artificial intelligence, functioned almost like the set of a sitcom, turning visitors into self-conscious performers as their comments triggered an algorithm-controlled laugh track. This, in turn, influenced visitors’ behavior.
Meanwhile, MIT’s Hayden Library was the setting for “The Control Room,” the second part of the installation, where large screens carried live streams from the Cambridge Public Library.
The overall effect was unnerving, making the Laughing Room’s occupants acutely aware of how we alter our behavior depending on the response it provokes.
“This idea of an audience is something I’ve been thinking about a lot,” said Sun, who is also an actor, author, and illustrator. “What it means to perform or to create a version of yourself online to an imagined audience.
“We all perform, to some extent, presenting different facets of ourselves depending on whom we are with,” he added. “Our identity is always based on context and who we’re around. Our sense of self is pretty fluid.”