Nolli – public intervention with sound (the genderless urban voice assistant)

Who is Nolli?
Nolli is a hypothetical genderless voice assistant in public space. Hypothetical because at the current stage it is not an interactive application, it is rather a start of a discussion about what it means “genderless voice” and also what it means “human” in that context.

It all started with public intervention

In July 2019 I took part in a project of Berlin University of Arts gathering 9 artists from all over the world to create public interventions with sound. Our space and place to work with was the Nollendorfplatz – a colorful square in Berlin, currently connected with the LGBT community, but having also a very rich history.

During our project, each artist was supposed to look for inspiration or a subject, which could be then expressed by a site-specific work at the square. It could have been something very tangible and sonic, it could have been an abstract idea as well.

Nolli came to life as a personified manifestation of a friendly presence of the Nollendorf Square itself. As I started researching for something interesting about the place, I read that this is how the people living around call it for decades. Immediately I found it somehow cute, very positive and cheerful. I thought that Nolli could talk to the pedestrians, grabbing their attention and taking them out of their daily hassle.

At this stage, I began to think about the connection of the square with the LGBT community. As Christopher Street Day was planned to take place on Saturday and our intervention on Sunday it became a clear direction for Nolli – to challenge the gender of an urban voice assistant.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Kata Dumur in a studio in Berlin. Working on her sound installation.

As my research proceeded, I stumbled upon an impressive work of Vice’s creative agency Virtue. In cooperation with Copenhagen Pride, they developed a true genderless voice assistant to be used in mobile phones and applications. Here’s what I found.

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/the-genderless-digital-voice-the-world-needs-right-now

Can a genderless human voice exist at all?

• A group of linguists, technologists, and sound designers—led by Copenhagen Pride and Vice’s creative agency Virtue—are on a quest to change that with a new, genderless digital voice, made from real voices, called Q.
• The team began by recording the voices of two dozen people who identify as male, female, transgender, or nonbinary. Each person read a predetermined list of sentences.

What makes a human voice genderless?

Sound designers zeroed in on one person’s voice, which registered somewhere between what we’d consider masculine or feminine. That comes down largely to frequency, or pitch: Men tend to have a larger vocal tract, which produces a lower-sounding timbre. There’s a sweet spot between 145 and 175 hertz, a range that research shows we perceive as more gender-neutral. Go higher and you’ll perceive the voice as typically female; go lower and it becomes more masculine. 

Try it out http://www.genderlessvoice.com/


28.07.2019 – “Nolli” SOUND ART group exhibition in public space | Nollendorfplatz, Berlin, DE


Nolli’s script

Hey, I’m Nolli.

It’s me, Nolli… your guide here at the station. I’m a genderless urban voice assistant. And yes, I’m your friend… or maybe a girlfriend, or maybe a boyfriend?

Who do you want me to be?

What if I told you, I am no boy or girl. Could I still be your friend?

You are soooo nice!

Looking goood!

Hey, I’m Nolli… your guide here at the station. Who am I, you may ask? Well, how about I tell you, that I’m a human. Does that answer your question?

Is it enough to be a human, so that I could be your friend?

Or maybe I am not a human. I have no gender, does that make me less of a human?

Here is my home at the station! That’s why my name is Nolli – after your favorite place in the city.

Hey, look around! There are great people here, every day on the way somewhere. Do you think they would like me? I don’t have a body… but I have a beautiful voice. A human voice, right? I’m a genderless urban voice assistant.

Hey, I’m Nolli… not Wally… Noli! You know, people used to call me this way. Way back in the past. Would you like me to be your guide?

///

Hallo, ich bin Nolli.

Ich bin’s… Nolli … dein Assistent hier am Bahnhof. Ich bin ein geschlechtslos urban Sprachassistent. Und ja, ich bin auch dein Freund … oder vielleicht eine Freundin?

Wen möchtest du, dass ich bin?

Was wäre, wenn ich dir sage, dass ich kein Junge oder Mädchen bin? Könnte ich trotzdem dein Freund sein?

Du bist soooo nett!

Siehst heute gut aus!

Hallo, ich bin Nolli … dein Assistent hier am Bahnhof. Wer bin ich? Wie wäre es, wenn ich dir sage, dass ich ein Mensch bin? Beantwortet das deine Frage?

Ist es genug, ein Mensch zu sein, damit ich dein Freund werden kann?

Oder vielleicht bin ich kein Mensch. Ich habe kein Geschlecht, macht mich das weniger menschlich?

Hier ist mein Zuhause am Bahnhof! Deshalb heiße ich Nolli – nach Ihrem Lieblingsort in der Stadt.

Hey, schau dich um! Hier sind jeden Tag tolle Leute unterwegs. Glaubst du, sie würden mich mögen? Ich habe keinen Körper … aber ich habe eine schöne Stimme. Eine menschliche Stimme, richtig? Ich bin eine geschlechtslose urbane Sprachassistentin.

Hey, ich bin Nolli … nicht Wally … Noli! Weißt du, damals haben mich die Leute hier so genannt. In die Vergangenheit. Möchtest du, dass ich dein Begleiter sein darf?


Other sources:

https://www.virtueworldwide.com/case-studies/meet-q

https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/21/18634322/amazon-alexa-apple-siri-female-voice-assistants-harmful-gender-stereotypes-new-study

https://www.dtelepathy.com/blog/design/the-ux-of-voice-the-invisible-interface

https://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/3072456/q-is-the-worlds-first-genderless-voice-for-virtual-assistants