Stepping Into the Unknown at the Knight Lab

Walking into the Knight Lab in Fisk Hall is a treat for anyone even vaguely interested in technology.  There are VR headsets on the wall, an Alexa in the corner, a conference room with brightly colored walls and a table littered with Google Cardboard. It’s a playground for grown-ups.  They even have an actual Muppet.  Actually, they have a Muppet “Whatnot,” which is a humanoid Muppet (like Ernie) rather than a monster (like Elmo).

It’s no surprise that the Knight Lab Studio class receives more applications than they can possibly accept each fall, winter and spring quarter. The class is cross-disciplinary, offered by Medill and The McCormick School of Engineering, uses technology and design methods to solve storytelling and journalism problems. Students from all over the university apply for the course, from communication and dance majors to the harder sciences like psychology and environmental sciences.  Currently taught by Kris Hammond, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Zach Wise, an associate professor in Medill who’s been helping run the Knight Lab for about five years.

Students apply into particular projects before the start of the quarter and competition is fierce.  Zach has found that one of the most important aspects of the class is building diverse teams. The instructors carefully build diverse teams, across gender, race, ethnicity, background – and they have found that the more diverse the team, the more likely they are to have success in their projects.  Each iteration of the class has led students to collaborate across teams. 

“The students learn what they need to know in context and with purpose,” Zach explains, “so it sticks a lot more.  I set up a scenario where they can learn from each other and they end up learning a lot more than just ‘teamwork.'"

The projects, which can be viewed on, address issues from visualizing data (like census statistics) to collecting data (such as air quality) to depicting data in virtual reality.  Other projects address the burgeoning field of 360° video – including capturing, editing and publishing content.  The 2018 winter quarter projects include continued study of data representation, augmented reality (AR) and immersive virtual experiences, and something they’re calling “Photo Bingo” that would allow news organizations to collect user-generated content from major multi-day events and festivals. 

Some projects even span quarters. For the past three, one group has been building inexpensive air quality sensors that communicate data back to a central point.  The technology could expand to water testing or gas detection.  Such a product could be offered by a city or a local news organization and would be a beneficial public service. Those are the types of story problems that the Knight Lab champions - it’s in line with their overriding philosophy of telling stories about a community and democratizing data.

They use a variety of technology ranging from the relatively simple, such as HTML and JavaScript for website creation, to the “unknown,” as Zach describes it, using AR and VR and 3D modelling and rendering tools.  While some students come in with a background in project-based courses and some experience with the technologies, not all students do.  Similarly, some students may come in with experience building things for real-world application, but generally not at the scale they’ll find in the Knight Lab class. 

Kelly Calagna, who worked on the environmental sensors project, said, "I was introduced to arduino boards for the first time and learned how to assemble them to create our nodes. On the first day of class I was offered a lesson in soldering, something I never expected to learn in my Master's in Journalism program." 

Supporting these disparate projects and various projects can be a challenge.  Each group has staff support to help lead the project and guide the students in learning about the associated technology.  Zach admits to “mental whiplash” on days the two-hour class is held as he moves between projection mapping and hardware sensors to a crowd-sourcing project.

Student enthusiasm is common in the Knight Lab Studio. "The room for creativity and the nature of the technology made it incredibly exciting to try new ideas constantly and help define the limitations of low-end projection mapping installations - essentially helping me understand how to work with emerging technology." said Samarth Soni, who's majoring in journalism and political science. "The project taught me how to learn quickly and efficiently about software, teamwork and our overarching project domain: augmented reality experiences and the limitations that come with designing for multiple, different stakeholders."

Each group creates an artifact that is public in some way. The hope is that the public or industry can benefit from the results or tools that they create. 

“It’s hard to get funding in journalism and media.  It’s hard to get time and space to do research but there are a lot of problems and interesting solutions that are meaningful," Zach explains. He sums up the always-changing class by saying, “It’s less lecturing in front of students and more interactive involvement and collaboration. We’re always stepping into the unknown, but it's fun.”