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Can a computer craft compelling stories?

USC researcher adapts a 70-year-old social science experiment

by Orli Belman
Heider-Simmel Interactive Theater
The Heider-Simmel Interactive Theater allows people to make movies and write stories.

Andrew Gordon studies stories. He leads the Narrative Group at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), where his research is devoted to getting computers to read and generate stories, using the knowledge in those stories to become more intelligent.

Gordon, a professor in the Department of Computer Science, has a new project that involves reimagining a 70-year-old social science experiment for the digital age.

In 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel created an animated film that depicted the motion of two triangles and a circle as they moved in and around a box that alternated between being opened and closed. Heider and Simmel asked people to describe what they saw in what is now considered a classic work in the field of social psychology.

The subjects responded with creative narratives that ascribed human-like goals, plans, beliefs and emotions to the moving objects. Popular themes included romantic relationships and prison breaks.

In short, viewers of the Heider-Simmel film treated the shapes as if they were people.

Gordon wondered if a computer could be taught to do the same thing. Thus, the Heider-Simmel Interactive Theater — a Web-based application that allows people to make their own movies and write their own stories using triangles — was born. A companion site is called Triangle Charades. Here, people can make their own animations of different actions and guess the intended actions in other people’s animations.

“This research is trying to solve a fundamental problem in human computer interaction,” Gordon said. “The end goal is to collect enough data to test and train our systems to recognize actions and narrative so that computers will tell stories that are as creative and compelling as the ones people are telling.”

In order to inform the computer, Gordon is hoping to collect large amounts of data so the system can be tested and trained to recognize actions and motivations. Anyone interested in participating as a study subject and content creator can follow the links below.

Learn more about the projects here.

Try the Heider-Simmel Interactive Theater online.

Play Triangle Charades online.

Funded by the Office of Naval Research, the project is a collaboration with Jerry Hobbs of the USC Information Sciences Institute and Louis-Philippe Morency and Melissa Roemmele of ICT.

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