The Living Mona Lisa Follows You With Her Eyes

No, it's not in your head. She's watching you.

A lurching floorboard creaks. An ambient howl fills a stuffy hallway. Suddenly, you notice that the paintings on the walls seem to follow you with their eyes. Dusty trompe l’oeils come to life, creepily warding off meddling intruders.

It’s a common, campy horror movie trope, and now, thanks to a team of French artists and technicians, it’s a reality.

The “Living Mona Lisa” is a new product that uses motion sensors to make the well-known subject’s eyes follow viewers, much like in the description above. And, her famous wry smile can turn into a frown when activated.

The team behind the project, helmed by Florent Aziosmanoff and the Paris Internet and Multimedia Institute, used Artificial Intelligence to create a remarkably responsive Mona Lisa. According to The Telegraph, she’s able to, “sense changes in her surroundings.” Although this technology was deployed to build and market a recognizable interactive painting, Aziosmanoff says he aims to create similar works using less well-known faces.

"One of the future objectives is to develop an emotional context that will take into account the past experiences and interactions of the system," Jean-Claude Heudin, the head of the Paris Internet and Multimedia Institute, added to The Telegraph.

In short: Aziosmanoff hopes to create more robotic subjects that learn and respond the way computers might. This raises a bevy of questions about the increasingly intertwined worlds of art and computer science. What is the benefit of AI systems that bring a subject to “life”? Does it dehumanize the creator, who’s able to make subjects “move” without literally moving? And does it take the thrill of connecting with a lively, inanimate work away from the viewer?

Also, is the technology simply unnecessary? The phenomenon of feeling watched by a painting is nothing new -- researchers have determined that the way we interact with static images differs from how we view individuals. When we view a painting, our minds register the image as two-dimensional but the object as three-dimensional and go haywire, contributing to the effect of roaming eyes. 

So, a Mona Lisa whose eyes dart back and forth and whose smile can recede into a frown when a room clears may belabor the artist's intentions, and fail to ignite viewers' imaginations. But that doesn't mean it's any less fun to watch.  

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