Rachel Kern's office in the MIT Media Lab is quiet -- a bit too quiet -- when visitors drop by to hear about Monkey Business, her master's thesis and the latest research phase in the lab's Speech Interface Group.
Then Kern sits down and begins to talk, and soon two plush monkeys hanging by their tails from little stands also begin to talk.
The chatter starts with a naturalistic "Squee!" from the monkey on Kern's desk, followed at once by a slightly different, equally natural little shriek from the monkey on a second desk. Little monkey faces go up and down. Invisible sensors sense. Tiny motors whir. Fuzzy arms reach out. Their animatronic cuteness knows no bounds.
"They're reacting to each other," Kern explains, as the electronic duet escalates, then ebbs. "My goal is to facilitate informal communication among distributed group members -- people who work together, but in different locations. The monkeys alert people in one office of activity or gathering in another place," she said.
The monkeys in Kern's office, known as Bruce and George, are not only responsive to Kern and to each other, but also to monkeys in other offices, notably that of principal research scientist Chris Schmandt, Kern's thesis advisor, and the offices of other members of the Speech Interface Group. Motion and proximity sensors and individualized "speech" programming identify the office where the fun is under way.
Thus Kern knows there's activity in Schmandt's office -- Bruce begins to twitch and look up and make little squeaks. His squeaks are different from George's and signal "which office has the activity," Kern said. (Their signals are actual snippets of recorded chimpanzee vocalizations, Kern said.)
With activity next door, and three people chatting and moving about in Kern's office, the noise of the two monkeys' sensors and squeakers and servo motors becomes distracting sometimes, Kern admitted.
"The spirit of the project is fun. They're designed to promote spontaneous communication," she said. "They can also be turned off."
A native of Newton, Mass., Kern has long been interested in affective computing -- using computer technologies to communicate, express, reflect or facilitate human emotional experience without relying on keyboards and monitors.
Formerly a keyboard and flute player for a Washington, D.C., rock band, LavaJet, Kern received the B.A. degree in cognitive science from Northwestern University in 1999. She worked as a software quality engineer until coming to the Media Lab in 2004.
One predecessor to Monkey Business was Kern's EMotoPhone, a cellphone that allows users to send personalized "emoticons" -- photo images of the sender's face displaying emotions such as affection or frustration -- on its screen. Another was Galvaphone, a cellphone equipped with a "galvactivator," a glove that can detect the wearer's galvanic skin response.
Her switch to working with animatronic agents -- electronic animals -- was inspired by the Cellular Squirrel, former Media Lab colleague Stefan Marti's cute stuffed squirrel whose wiry "guts" serve as a mobile communication device.
Formally known as an autonomous interactive intermediary, Marti's Cellular Squirrel neither rings nor vibrates. Instead, it uses little gestures to alert the user -- its "companion" -- that an instant voice message has arrived.
"Stefan tried out several electronic animals -- he built a parrot, then a bunny, which morphed into a squirrel. It was very popular, more like a phone. It has a light, informal quality," she said.
The two monkeys in Kern's office do have the light-hearted, informal quality Kern enjoyed in the Cellular Squirrel. Eventually, she said, the monkeys in Monkey Business could be customized, so each one could be used to sense remote activity in particular locations, to move in particular ways as well as communicate with others. They could also be used to broadcast audio activity to keep people connected.
Thanks to their playfulness and their programming, the monkeys may have applications in health care. But for now, Bruce and George and their friends just want to have fun, Kern said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 17, 2006 (download PDF).