Chess Re-Imagined

By Zura Javakhadze

         Graphic by Jacob Hunwick

On Saturday October 5th, 2019 a public performance exhibition was given at the conclusion of the month long ‘Good Moves’ exhibition dedicated to the game of chess, at The Power Station art space in Dallas, Texas. ‘Good Moves’ featured chess related artworks, that further develop the aesthetic legacy of the game, while collectively serving a worthy purpose. All works included in ‘Good Moves’ were auctioned at the close of the exhibition to endow a chess program at Vogel Alcove, a Dallas-based, non-profit organization on a mission to help young children overcome the lasting and traumatic effects of homelessness.

The performance was called “Chess Re-imagined” as was the first public exhibition of months of work examining the idea of using the game of chess tied to various multimedia configurations to display the state of the game via extended visual and auditory/musical means. Blindfolded chess game as well as all other chess related nuances were taken care by Grandmaster Elect and 3x Texas State Chess Champion Zura Javakhadze. The auditory work was based on the Data Stethoscope project of the ARTSCI Lab of UT Dallas, with the leadership of Award-winning composer Scot-Gresham Lancaster. The visual work was done by Dr. William Thibault PhD semi-independently from Auditory. Another collaborator of the project was Machine Listening and Audio Cognition expert Sharath Chandra, who was in charge of tech-aspect of the performance. 

 We are happy to report that, while a little chaotic in the context of a gallery serving alcohol and snacks in the performance area, the results of our survey and our informal inquiries have returned almost completely positive feedback and many rich insights for improvement.

Configuration 

  1. DGT electronic chess board 
  2. Software reading the chess moves on that board in real time 
  3. Those moves turned into OPEN SOUND CONTROL (OSC) messages
  4. Interpretation of those messages into: 
    1. Visual real time interactive 3d scene graph representations 
    2. Auditory Sonification that represent aspects of the game play

Results

By all our measures this event was a success. When the games were happening, the audience was engaged and as the survey demonstrated, for the most part, that the comprehension of the sonification aspects of the work were tangible and fairly well comprehended. Below is a set of materials that the performance generated that will help understand if we are able to achieve our objective analyzing this performance as an authentic instance of research. We did this in a number of ways.

Result Notes by Scot-Gresham Lancaster

This is a very positive outcome indicating that technique of using a combination of Earcon’s and Spearcon’s to reflect the chess moves was successful. This supports the notion that this approach could be transferred to other areas of data science beyond tabletop gaming which is the general area that we are categorizing this research in terms of a potential minimum viable product (MVP). There was some disappointment that we used words to express the “rank and file” (A – 7, E -3, etc.) In rehearsal we tried just sounds with much less success. So, the determination was to insure Zura’s success we would just use the timbre and Earcon melody fragments to represent the piece rank (pawn, knight, queen, etc.) and the color of the piece (black and white)

A positive result for the core part of the test, but if we get the opportunity to try this again, we need to test at a more granular level. We did not differentiate between the Earcon/Spearcon representation, the pan/pulse eval representation and the eval represented as a variable “boom chick” rhythm. There was an oversight that will be corrected next time to have a more thorough explanation of the “1st order” sonification representations that were the “pan/pulse” and “boom/chick” part of the audio experience. Roger Malina after the hectic party atmosphere of this art gallery context suggested that we arrange an invitation only “exhibition” next time. 

We did not get the opportunity to more granularly ask about distinguishing the major events of the game that were also represented with Earcons, castling, capture, check, game over (resign and tie) and checkmate. 

Additionally, and completely unexplained to the audience was that there were sonic representations of the potential future attacks. This was a very sophisticated sonic design that reflected the future state of the board and the potential new moves and their relative strengths for the side that had just moved. (Picture shown below.) Ultimately, we decided these sounds were an interesting part of the soundscape generated by the chess driven sound state machine that had been designed, but an explanation and expectation of any audience member being able to discern this sophisticated sound would not be fruitful. So, it was decided to just add it in during moments later in the evening as and an additional part of the sound texture, but unexplained.

This is a little of a more disappointing result with just a little over 20% of the respondents feeling that the overall effect of the various sonification techniques were helpful in following the game play. With more testing it is possible that the time it takes to “learn” the sounds will be able to be determined, but in this preliminary test that was not an option.

This aspect of multi modal media, or media of at least two senses is a very interesting area to pursue further. The examples using the fMRI data from our earlier research were never tested in this way, so getting these results is very telling. The intuitive conclusion is that the visuals are a good support for improving the response to the sonification, but an interesting test in a more controlled environment. The implicit future test would be a combination of just the visuals, just the sonification, and then the combination of both, to see what would get the best result.

POINTS OF FAILURE AND POTENTIAL IMPROVEMENTS

The responses of survey takers

  • It is clear that there was too much ancillary sound that was not part of the sound design that bothered some of the respondents enough to make a comment. This is a small point but worth observing. There has been a point of controversy between at least two of the collaborators. 
  • SGL felt that the playing of a non-data driven drum machine during all the breaks between games, which was a unilateral and not agreed upon part of the sound environment was an extreme distraction from our intended purpose. The other collaborators, besides SCR, agreed this seemed a distraction to the focused listening intent of this work and created a “party atmosphere” that promoted loud talking and much less attentive listening than we had desired. However, the sudden stop in the music before the actual performance resulted in the audience’s saliency and attention towards the MC taking over the microphone. This perhaps retained a critical mass of the merry audiences’ presence and attention during the actual chess performance which we all agree was a success. 
  • SCR was of the opinion that the ancillary “background music” the respondents were referring to was instances  like the one 5 minute section where an acoustic guitar improvisation was done based on the Rank and File data of a fast game play between professional players with the unexplained sounds late in the evening that were introduced representing future attack sonification.
  • This is the sort of informative result of investigation that makes our approach of performance-oriented research so unique and we would argue, richer and more compelling. 
  • A very disrespectful and glaring error was that we did not run through the talk a second time in the course of the evening and in the initial presentation SGL moved on to the first game before both Dr. Thibault and Mr. Chandra got the opportunity to fully explain their contributions to the game data representations. This was an unfortunate oversight that will be rectified if the opportunity to do this again arises. 
  • The first game between two members of the audience went on way too long. While this game was supposedly on the clock, we did not enforce the time constraints due to the inexperience of players, and it went on way longer than what was prudent. Additionally, by the end of the game it was just a back and forth. That would have been a draw in a professional tournament setting. When we revisit this, we need a mechanism for strict enforcement of time so that the games don’t go on so long. 

ETHICAL AND LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS

How did this collaboration happen?

Dr. William C. Thibault Ph.D. and Scot Gresham-Lancaster MA/MFA have been collaborating together on various pieces since 1990. When James Stallings contacted Scot to contribute to the “Good Moves” exhibit closing evening, he first thought of resurrecting the piece that he had done for the 9e2 event in Seattle in Oct. of 2016, it was a third of the presentation that was part of the DARPA funded research identified as the “Data Stethoscope” project.(Video of the full performance https://vimeo.com/356344252) This project was a demonstration of artistic approaches to using data to examine a field of FMRI data provided by neuroscientist Dr. Gagan Wig and his lab from the Center for Longevity Studies at UT Dallas.  Scot determined that this code was still working and accepted the offer to start work on the performance in July. However, this did not fully meet the criterion of moving the Data Stethoscope tests of artistic practice as research methodology. 

For the past two years Scot, Dr. Roger Malina, Sharath Chandra Ram with some interaction with various ancillary individuals have been working developing a “fuzzy taxonomy” of “Ways of Listening to Data” based on various prototype modules that both Scot and Chandra had been collaborating to develop. The intent of finding an opportunity or opportunities to develop use cases and performances to create a minimum viable product (MVP) demonstrations of this research. 

By chance, Scot reconnected with his old friend and collaborator Bill (William above) and discovered Bill had immersed himself in an in-depth private research practice into chess. Playing at a professional level and integrating some of his post-retirement research to developing chess related software to analyze the game play. 

In the ensuing conversations Bill became interested in using his own DGT chess board to create a set of a type of messages called Open Sound Control or OSC messages that would characterize each move of the chess game in real time. Working in collaboration with Scot they developed an agreed upon set of messages that represented the game play after each move. 

Once he developed this code base both he and Scot had an agreed upon set of descriptors for all the various aspects of game play, he developed a “PGN player” that sent each move from a large catalog of Chess Master games one move at a time at a random interval of 3 to 15 seconds, to emulate actual game play. A PGN is an encoded list of the algebraic notation of a chess game move by move. Each move was communicated over the internet from Bill’s studio in Castro Valley. Over the next 2 months Bill and Scot worked to expand and refine the visuals and sound separately, but in an integrated way via these OSC shared vocabulary. 

On Scot’s return trips one week a month to Texas as part of his association with the ArtSci lab, he met the Grand Master elect Zura Javakhadze to discuss the specific chess aspects of what was being developed. Also, as part of the more far reaching work of the more general Data Stethoscope project the progress of this work was shared and commented on by Dr. Roger Malina and Sharath Chandra Ram as part of their meeting regarding the ongoing research.

Besides this single face to face visit in late August, for the 2 months leading up to the performance, when Scot was back in California, there were daily email and phone connection with Roger who was introduced to the notion that Bill Thibault was working very closely with Scot creating this new work. Chandra was getting ready for the qualifying exam for his PhD and Roger and Scot agreed to lighten his load relative to this particular endeavor. This was a change from our usual configuration where Scot and Chandra worked in close daily collaboration.

The week before the performance began integration of the research modules that both Bill and Scot had been working on. Chandra was expected to have another of our earlier developed modules ready for integration from our Jupyter notebook research earlier in the year, but he had been busy with other pressing matters when we first arrived. He was able to put together a version of the “pan pulse” sonic value representation. His module, like other dynamic messages in the system was linked to the Stockfish Chess analysis engine. In this case it was a representation of the dynamic evaluation of whether White or Black was more likely to win, changing with each move. The day before the performance Chandra’s Pan/pulse eval part of the module was integrated. Additionally, Scot added a version of the “boom – chick” module. (Visual representation of Stockfish evaluation window can be seen on the right side of the image) 

Throughout the time leading into the arrival of the California part of the team, (Scot and Bill.)  Roger assigned the set of marketing and PR tasks leading up to the event, to a team of Zura Javakhadze, Linda Anderson and Jacob Hunwick. At a certain point Roger commented on the gender imbalance in the team, as we are striving to keep that balance as part of all the work associated with the ArtSci Lab. Daily input and suggestions that Scot’s wife Kathryn was contributing to the work was immense, and was acknowledged from early on. Still not a complete balance of gender but her perspective was invaluable in many of the decisions and editions as the project moved forward. Once all the collaborators were in the Dallas area, the idea was floated to recruit an “MC” for handling the flow of the program. The individuals suggested were rejected by the team that had been working on the piece. A post performance observation is that stage manager and a tighter adherence to the script would have added to the general clarity of the performance. This was a complex and multi layered collaboration that was ultimately very successful in demonstrating the efficacy of using Earcons, Spearcons and a type of 1st order sonification to represent the dynamic course of a real time chess game auditorily.

Were innovations created in the form of new intellectual property?

  • At its core this was a test to see if certain of identified sonification techniques could integrate with Dr. Thibault’s separate visual engine, much in the same way sonification for the Make or Break Unity engine were tested during the DARPA funded portion of the research. This proof was successful. 
  • We confirmed that a complex task like playing a game of chess blindfolded is possible with only auditory cues. We need to take the next step and make the cues entirely non speech earcons completely.

Was everyone’s contribution fairly credited and exhibited? 

  • Zura and Scot made an extreme blunder by not carving a time out during the performance itself for both Dr. Thibault and Sharath Chadra to describe their contributions to the crowd. This was not only bad form but it left many in the audience without clarity about the processes both visual and to a small extent auditorily that they were experiencing. Additionally, there should have been a recap announcement that credited everyone involved which was not done. That was an extreme oversight. 
  • Care was given to credit everyone involved in all the written material, including the pamphlet and poster that were generated. The announcement given to ATEC for publication included no names which was probably for the best since it was submitted the full team was still in flux.

Was everyone fairly compensated?

  • The Powerstation art space provided both the airfare and lodging for Scot and Bill 
  • An honorarium from the charity for Bill Thibault satisfied his requirements 
  • Zura and videographer Adnan Naseem were compensated by the charity fund

Success Criteria

The motivation in doing this work was driven by certain criterion which should culminate in answering these questions: 

Did the performance work as research?

  • Audience size
    • Headcount throughout the span of entire 3 hour was at about 250 people. 
  • Quiz Handout Responses
  • Number of potential investors participation 
    • 2 Interested Parties

How did it improve or add to the Data Stethoscope Project software base? 

  • From the survey results it can be asserted that future use of well thought-out musical Earcons and Spearcons can be successful.

Was the addition of artist driven research a means of coming up with innovation and insight? 

  • The positive outcome points to the fact that using a public exhibition of a well-known tabletop game that is linked to sonication is an effective way of demonstrating larger principles. More work would be needed to confirm that this specific auditory augmentation of the game of chess could be successful if distributed at a large scale.

Press reaction generated by the performance

CONCLUSION

Without a doubt this was a groundbreaking new approach to “reimagining” what tournament chess play could entail. By augmenting the sensory information created by the game play itself, we have elevated the ancient game to a new level of engagement. The results of this performance research were very positive and lead to new avenues to continue our ongoing investigation into the bringing audio user interfaces to fully distributed use across a much larger demographic than we currently see.

We can be confident that the idea of using a combination of Earcons and Spearcons was a success in guiding a blindfolded chess master through a game without moves being directly told to them and only using those more abstract sonification, once he has learned them. This supports the argument put forward in much of the writing on this topic that the idea of LET or Learning, Exploring, Testing is supported in this research performance context. Chess Master Zura became familiar with the sonic representations after about 45 minutes of a practice session. He was able to successfully win 5 total blindfold games. This points to the future use of these techniques in a variety of future contexts not only related to tabletop gaming but in other areas of research, medicine and business analytics. 

Additionally, we had enough success to conclude that we are able to contribute to the field of sonification via this performance development and using performance work as research.

Credits & Contributors

Scot Gresham Lancaster – Collaborator      Kathryn Gresham Lancaster – Project Advisor

William Thibault – Collaborator                   Thomas Riccio – Project Advisor 

Sharath Chandra – Collaborator                   Jacob Hunwick – PR Team

Gregory Ruppe – Space Facilitator               Linda Anderson – PR Team 

Roger Malina – Project Producer                  Rose Garrett – Helped designing initial flyer 

Cybernetic Serendipity at the National Academy of Sciences

by Sharath Chandra Ram
edited by JoAnn Nguyen

‘Creativity and Collaboration: Revisiting Cybernetic Serendipity’ was hosted at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the cybernetic serendipity exhibition curated in 1968 that brought together experimental electronic and interactive media artists under one roof. The event brought together leading experts from the fields of technology, art and science who were trying to deal with complex questions that surround transdisciplinary collaborations and was supported and funded by Google inc. and the Arthur M Sackler Foundation. Continue reading “Cybernetic Serendipity at the National Academy of Sciences”