A global chat with the man on the street, quite literally

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An multimedia project

in Brighton is linking pedestrians with Internet surfers around the world. Louise Hancock talks to Susan Collins, creator of `In Conversation'.

Imagine walking down the street one wintry afternoon, absorbed in your thoughts of dinner, warmth and a nice documentary on the telly, when a voice suddenly announces, "Hi, it's Bill here from Arizona. What's your name?"

What would be your first reaction? Would you stop and look suspiciously around for that hidden camera? Keep walking, hoping the voice will go away? Or would you, perhaps, strike up a conversation? In Brighton over the past couple of weeks, pedestrians have found themselves faced with this dilemma. And all because of "In Conversation".

"In Conversation" is an Internet art project created by electronic media specialist Susan Collins. Her aim was to explore the impact of new technology on communication - whether the real and the virtual can interrelate. Her method was to set up the means by which Net users can strike up a conversation with passers-by on the street outside the Fabrica Gallery on Duke Street.

"It was originally an experiment to prove that the two groups of the Net and the street would keep separate, and not communicate," Collins explains. "But what I've actually found is that people on the Internet are desperate to talk to each other, and passers-by on the street have been keen to stop and chat."

The head of Electronic Media at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, Collins came up with the premise after observing that when using chat rooms, Internet users were swift to establish contact but didn't seem to know what to do next.

"I wanted to see if they could get beyond that, particularly when the element of people on the street was thrown into the equation," Collins says.

What the project has revealed is that the boundaries of real and virtual space, both of which are part of public space, are not hard and fast. Communication is still possible, and even eagerly seized upon, despite differences in the media and the people who frequent them.

The project consists of three elements. Pedestrians outside the Fabrica Gallery see an image of a mouth projected on to the pavement. They can hear a computer voice triggered by Internet users, and if they choose to reply, a concealed microphone and surveillance camera record their reactions. They cannot, however, see who they are talking to.

Net users access the project's Web site (http://www.inconversation.com), where they can view the surveillance camera image and hear people on the street. By typing in a greeting, they can strike up a conversation with somebody passing by. The entire scenario is then relayed to a large projection screen on a wall of the Fabrica Gallery, where the conversation is amplified to create a heightened sense of reality for onlookers.

Collins has been amazed by the response to her experiment. "A `Web protocol' has grown up around it. Someone will say: `Hi, it's Jenny from Birmingham', and then they'll have an entire conversation about origins. People on the street start talking to each other as well: one person will stop, then a crowd gathers. It's almost surreal.

"People are coming back time and time again, including those on the street, even when they've been asked to do ridiculous things like a song and dance. At one stage, we had a thousand people trying to get online at the same time."

But Susan Collins is the first to admit that communication is not quite smooth sailing with her project. The computer voice creates an atmosphere of impersonality, while a time lag of between 10 and 20 seconds for the video image to appear on screen means that a conversation is eerily similar to long-distance telephone calls of the past.

No more than 60 people can be online at any one time, and the queuing system means that sentences can sometimes be mixed up from different conversations. But, Collins points out, that is all part of the fun: "It's a collision between two very different types of conversation, perhaps creating new forms of communication."

So is this the future of the Internet? Susan Collins certainly hopes so. She intends to take "In Conversation" around the country, to explore the different reactions of pedestrians. Meantime, the initial trial is set to end in Brighton on Saturday.

In Conversation is live from 3-7pm through 13 December.