Connecting the Dots by Crossing Borders
Director of Collaborations
Center for Emerging Media, University of Central Florida
Lai Zhai, the research professor at the Nanoscience and Technology Center invited me into his office to view his work and promptly asked me, "Do you know why ducks can float on water and chickens can’t?" I replied, "No," and waited for the punch line. However, I soon learned that this was not a joke as he proceeded to describe the microstructural differences between their feathers. More fascinating to the artist in me were the images showing the physical origin of colors on a butterfly wing. Unlike the inherent colors of other organic materials in nature, the colors of butterflies, humming bird and peacock feathers are created through diffraction or interference of light due to the presence of microstructures. Lai went on to explain how this exciting bio-inspired research is applied to new products. I, on the other hand, captivated by the abstract beauty of these microstructures, promptly called Theo Lotz, the Art Department’s gallery curator, to ponder the idea of an art exhibit where we can marry science and art.
Poster by Lei Zhai, detailing micro-structure of butterfly wing coloration
Welcome to my new role as Director of Collaborations for the Center of Emerging Media at the University of Central Florida. As my title implies, I identify, encourage, and develop collaborative projects among university faculty, students and community professionals who are pursuing various forms of new media/technology research. The Center for Emerging Media itself by its sheer design reinforces the concept of collaboration. The building is a large space of over 100,000 square feet which was once an exposition space for tradeshows. Four years ago, with funding from the city, state and the university, it was renovated to house new venues including the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, a thriving masters degree granting game design program. Next to FIEA is the House of Moves, the largest motion capture studio on the East Coast along with a professional quality sound stage which serves as a production facility for both film professionals and students. Currently, more walls and ceilings are being torn, and by fall, there will be additional renovated spaces for several new venues including Citi-Lab, a partnership with the University of Florida’s School of Architecture, which will house graduate classes doing research in urban studies. Adjacent to the pristine high tech spaces, will be a large “dirty” space where MFA students in the studio arts program will be working with traditional media, paint and canvas. They will also have access to a new digital lab and are steps away from digital media and game design students working on computers. Another “traditional” venue, the Flying Horse Press, a printing press for fine art books along with its two galleries, will open its doors here in the fall as well. The intersection of these new entities should create innovative crossovers.
I have been away from academia for over 10 years having worked for 6+ years at Disney Animation and recently at Electronic Arts for almost 5 years. The notion of interdisciplinary interactions is quite familiar to me since much of the work in the entertainment industry relies on collaborations as daily practice. Synergy was the word we used at Disney. In the video games environment, designers, artists and programmers work side by side by necessity. In the numerous presentations I’ve delivered at college campuses, I’ve consistently stressed the importance of the ability to work effectively within teams made up of different disciplines. An understanding and respect of a colleague’s contributions are often critical to the success of a game or film. Perhaps just as important, success in our current global changing economy requires workers not be narrowly focused but are broadly educated. It is good to know that at the University of Central Florida, as in a number of universities, there are interdisciplinary programs offered to students with faculty collaborative examples leading the way.
It is in this atmosphere that I have arrived at UCF. As I mentioned, my focus is primarily connecting with faculty and departments in collaborative projects, grant proposals or educational initiatives that center on emerging media. My strategy is to meet with all the deans as well as interested department heads, faculty and students from across the greater university community. This is a daunting task considering that UCF, with an enrollment of 51,000, is the 6th largest university in the nation. As I write this, I’ve been here exactly ninety days and I have met over sixty colleagues from seven colleges out of the twelve. This is one big campus but I remain determined to complete my investigative visits in another month. When I began my research, I had high expectations but did not actually know what I would uncover. Without shamelessly promoting this university, let me just say it’s been eye opening thus far. Perhaps by sharing with you some of the individuals I have interviewed, you’ll understand my excitement, and my vision of the possibilities.
Stella Sung: Professor of Music, Digital Media Department
I first met Stella three years ago at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy’s yearend student game design presentations where her music was used in an award winning student video game. Stella’s office is located one floor below mine. On my second day at work, we had a lunch meeting when I learned about the depth of her work and her commitment to use her music as a means of communications in modern culture. Even though she was classically trained and has composed music for world-renowned artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, she pushes the boundaries in exploring a myriad of new platforms, including video games, using digital media technology alongside performances of large orchestral compositions. Of note, Stella also runs the CREATE program here at the Center for Emerging Media which promotes community projects ranging from the Young Composers Challenge program to Digital U, a summer camp for underrepresented students. http://create.cah.ucf.edu/projects_index.php
On my way home from work that day, I listened to a CD of Stella’s music that she had given me at lunch. “Okay,” I said to myself. “You’re off to a good start.”
Screenshot from the video game, Opera Slinger, that used music composed by Stella Sung
Eileen Smith: Associate Director of the Media Convergence Laboratory
The Media Convergence Laboratory, a branch of UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training, is located in a district abutting the main campus known as Central Florida Research Park, where research-oriented industries including the military and academic divisions form alliances. To get to MCL, you turn onto a street appropriately named Progress Drive. Nearby are Science Drive, Ingenuity Drive, Discovery Drive, Technology Parkway and of course, Research Parkway. Research funding at UCF currently exceeds $120 Million and ranks 7th in the nation in patent strength not far behind heavy hitters like MIT, California Institute of Technology and Harvard.
The work Eileen Smith does is a perfect example of merging seemingly divergent disciplines. Working with Charles Hughes, Director of MCL, one of her latest projects involves a new tool for teacher training programs where students can interact with human-puppeteered avatars in a dynamic classroom environment. In close consultation with Lisa Dieker and Michael Hynes from the College of Education this interdisciplinary project brings together computer science, digital media, teacher education and interactive performance.
As an instructor, Eileen believes in project based learning. Her students come from computer science, digital media, animation and music. As in the games industry that I left, students work side by side interacting as a team in building their immersive mixed reality environments.
Jeff Wirth: Director, Interactive Performance Lab, Department of Digital Media
Not far from the Media Convergence Lab on Research Parkway is the Interactive Performance Lab where Jeff Wirth and his iTeam are pioneering live simulation for entertainment, training and education. Twenty minutes into my initial meeting with Jeff, I was distracted by loud screams between a man and a woman outside his office. I was unnerved until I realized that it was a theater class where actors were rehearsing their lines. Not solely actors, these iTeam members are skilled in the five areas of interactive performance – acting, improvisation, story, psychology, and technology. Past projects have ranged from live simulations for the emergency room of a medical center, prototyping virtual systems for stuttering therapy, training systems for the hospitality service industry to video games for education. Jeff’s background has included work with Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group, Disney, and Universal Studios but his mission pushes beyond the realm of entertainment.
iTeam working in an early prototype of the StoryBox "wizards booth."
Phil Peters: Professor and Coordinator of Graduate Studies, Department of Digital Media
Phil’s office is around the corner from mine. His walls are covered with movie posters from the Seventies and Eighties but don’t let his vintage collection fool you. Phil Peters knows his technology and works in the forefront of emerging media. After providing me a brief bio of his professional career which spans 25 years as a film production designer, game producer/ designer and numerous television projects including the Emmy winning series Northern Exposure, he started to sketch out his current research project on the white board. By drawing rows of small circles connected by straight lines, he explained to me what “transect” meant. Phil's research into live, remote, interactive distance learning has included projects in the deserts of Arizona and Utah, southern India, the caves of Bermuda and throughout Africa. In collaboration with Bruce Janz, Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department, his current project, Cairo to Cape Town, involves a semester long Interactive Cultural Transect of East Africa. This unique project offers a revolutionary means of experiential teaching and learning through real-time, interactive web-casting platform that links remote research teams with web-connected students worldwide. Phil erases national borders as readily as he does conceptual limitations.
Phil Peters on location in interactive remote learning class
Bruce Janz: Chair, Dept. of Philosophy and Director, Center for Humanities and Digital Research
Bruce, who is collaborating with Phil Peters, has also jumped borders having taught in Kenya and South Africa, and embraces the idea of place and space across many disciplines, including digital ones. This link will take you to the Center for Humanities and Digital Research and you will get a sense of the broad scope of interdisciplinary projects that this philosophy professor is exploring. http://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/
Craig Saper: Professor of Texts and Technology, English Department
On this expansive campus where new buildings sprout as fast as cabbage palms, full of vitality and transformation, I came face to face with a temporary trailer, TR 541. What would I find inside - some renegade professor whose mad antics have cast him to the hinterlands…? Not exactly. Craig Saper is indeed somewhat of a rebel who certainly does not fit the image I had of a staid English professor. Full of enthusiasm and candor, he remarks on the contrast of the sophisticated computer on his desk to the Spartan surroundings of his trailer office. I took notice but when he started to speak, I quickly realized that Craig’s workspace was virtually beyond these plain walls and his time reference was in the past and in the future.
Craig Saper has a doctorate in English with a specialization in film and media theory. His intriguing project investigates reading experiences through the use of reading machines that is influenced by Bob Carlton Brown’s work in 1929. This Sim-Read project is the first in a series of reading simulations that will allow research into the visceral experience of reading. In explaining the purpose of The Reading Machine project, Craig states, “To understand the most important questions confronting my discipline -- the role and future of the humanities -- we need to use new tools ... tools that we used to call art, animation, video-games, etc.”
Art, animation, video games coupled with English, text and technology? Yes, I’m no longer surprised, just captivated.
Try out The Reading Machine here: http://www.readies.org/
The Reading Machine based on Bob Carlton Brown’s 1929 concept
John Shafer: Assistant Professor, Theatre Department
John Shafer is a Theatre professor who believes that art and science are not separate areas of study. His experiments involve the intersection of humanity and technology. He says, “Technology is useless without human interaction and works best in all disciplines when it facilitates our connections with each other.” A recent collaborative project, Alice Experiments In Wonderland merged three distant university stages, casts, and audiences into one live interactive experience. Audiences and casts went through the looking glass and into an innovative wonderland created via Internet2 high-speed connection, 2D and 3D sets, and multiple screens. To see how it was done, try reading Live Design Magazine’s, Go Ask Alice here:
Stephen Fiore: Department of Philosophy, Director of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory
A philosophy professor pursuing a broad-based scholarship of teaching and learning and has his office at the Institute of Simulation and Training, a world renowned research facility for simulation and modeling research. Seemingly an unusual environment for a philosopher but not so considering Professor Fiore’s multidisciplinary research interests. http://csl.ist.ucf.edu/. Steve currently has a joint appointment with the Cognitive Sciences program in the Department of Philosophy and the Institute of Simulation and Training.
Lori Walters: Faculty Researcher, Institute of Simulation and Training
A research historian and a team of her students have recreated the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in virtual space. This interactive site is more than just an exploratory game; it immerses the visitor in the social and political scene of the mid 1960s.
Scott Hagen: Associate Professor, Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering. CHAMPS Lab
A professor in the College of Engineering, Scott and his graduate student showed me a highly technical PowerPoint of their current project in computational hydroscience engineering focusing on coastal regions of Florida. Living in hurricane plagued Florida, this research into tidal forecasting is highly relevant. Watching the PowerPoint, I couldn’t help but imagine the simulations fully animated with special effects and aerial cameras. http://champs.cecs.ucf.edu/
Atsusi Hirumi: Associate Professor & Co-Chair, Instructional Technology
A professor from the College of Education, Atsusi is known as “2C,” has a national reputation for his extensive research in e-learning. His work focuses on developing systems to train educators on the design, development and delivery of interactive distance education programs. He has also worked as a consultant in designing educational and training games. Atsusi’s research and professional dossier numbers 40 pages; I need to meet with him again!
Deborah German: Dean of College of Medicine
Dr. German was one of the first deans to reach out to me after my initial introduction to the university deans. The UCF College of Medicine, http://www.med.ucf.edu/about/, is the new research medical school that will be part of a medical city in nearby Lake Nona, Florida, with its Charter Class starting in the fall. When I explained my role to her, Dr. German was enthusiastic about exploring collaborations of the medical school faculty and students with university researchers in other fields of study. We are currently working on a co-presentation of medical school faculty and faculty from other disciplines such as game design, film, animation, simulation and modeling to explore unique partnerships.
Rudy McDaniel: Assistant Professor, Digital Media Department
This young professor has undergraduate degrees in Psychology, Computer Science, Technical Writing and a Ph.D. in Texts and Technology. Restless? No, Rudy just has a wide-ranging curiosity in many topics. Currently, Rudy is leading the undergraduate game design program in Digital Media. He has done in- depth research along with Steve Fiore and in narrative learning and game-based learning environments. Rudy will be pushing games from a purely entertainment base to educational and social causes.
E. Brady Robinson: Assistant Professor, Department of Art
One look at Brady’s photographs and you quickly get the sense that she is not a traditional photographer. This professor will be overseeing the MFA Studio Art & the Computer program where students are encouraged to combine their backgrounds in traditional art or computer-related disciplines within a conceptually driven, interdisciplinary environment. Courses in this program provide exposure to time-based media, performance art, video art, sound works, kinetic sculpture, computer-based art, and art using the Internet in order to understand how these forms are driving 21st century artistic practice. As I mentioned earlier, Brady and her MFA students will be a core part of the newly renovated spaces at the Center for Emerging Media late summer. I can’t wait. http://www.gobrady.com/ucf_mfa.html
In this article I have provided a glimpse of some of the innovative work done by faculty here at UCF. By citing these interdisciplinary initiatives, I trust you can also see the opportunities that gather before me in my role as the “dot connector.” There will be more borders to cross when I connect with individuals from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, College of Optics and Photonics and the College of Science. Feel free to check with me in six months to see what projects have emerged from my exploratory forays, and what fun I’m having. I also welcome proposals from the greater SIGGRAPH community on potential partnerships. After all, education should not be hindered by boundaries.
About the Author:
Jack Lew, Emerging Media Expert and Arts Education Advocate
(trying out head mounted device at Media Convergence Lab)
is the Director of Collaborations at the Center for Emerging Media, University of Central Florida. Having worked in the entertainment industry, Disney Animation and Electronic Arts, for over 10 years combined with an academic career that spans 24 years, Jack has a unique perspective to share on arts education. As an arts education advocate, he has delivered numerous keynotes at national educational forums including the National Art Education Conference and currently works closely with the NEA at the Education Leaders Institute on redefining arts education for the 21st Century.