Each quarter, Northwestern’s Knight Lab offers a studio class in which a select group of students collaborate on innovative projects. Students come from a variety of disciplines to create an artifact related to their project. Zach Wise, one of the instructors in the studio course, sat down with me recently to discuss some of the projects.
Augmented & Virtual Reality
One of the six projects focused on immersive art utilizing virtual reality (VR). The students conducted research and considered different ways of capturing a dance performance that would mimic reality and perhaps even “improve” on reality. The project team collaborated with a start-up called Oscillations, a movement and media arts production company with similar goals. The students experimented with different technologies and, not inconsequentially, price points.
Ben Singer, one of the students on this project, said, “We had access to a wide array of motion capture technology, including some really expensive suits, which we put professional dancers in to track their movements. It was pretty surreal seeing an avatar on our computer that brought their dances to life by really convincingly mimicking their movements!”
Another student, Khoa Xuan Truong, was focused on the task of finding accessible, scalable ways to capture three-dimensional information for VR.
“Not surprisingly, the more expensive hardware/software produced the most accurate and consistent results, and in general it's not easy to capture motion,” he said. “The most exciting thing was seeing the dancers play around in mocap [motion capture] suits and seeing their body movements reproduced on screen.”
Although the project dealt with cutting-edge technologies and techniques, the age-old questions of performance and performative space were ever present. They sought to identify what makes performances engaging and how people from different backgrounds prefer to consume visual and movement arts. The students hope their work will allow people who lacked the opportunity to see live performances to experience them using VR.
Students capturing dancers using VR equipement
Lo- to No-Fi
Wise explains that in order to make the projects both accessible to the multi-disciplinary teams as well as financially viable, they often use lo- or no-fi tools to experiment. After telling me about a project to explore visualizations in augmented reality (AR), I marveled that the students were able to learn this technology in the duration of a one-quarter class.
“Well, it’s really trying to understand the space.” Wise said. Lo-fi prototypes allow the teams to be more agile and creative. It’s easy to pivot if they run into a problem in the mechanics. "We want them to get into a little trouble and realize the problem, experience it," he says of the student experience. Allowing students to make mistakes and then solve them adds to the real-world aspect of the course.
Fact Checking the News
Kris Hammond, co-instructor of the studio course, helped coordinate a fact-checking tool some of the students were working on developing. Wise explained that with such a tool, it might be possible to be watching a news segment on television and then say, “Alexa,” or “Hey, Google, is that true?” and the machine would check it for you.
Wise whispers the word “Alexa” because there’s an Amazon Echo in the corner of the room we’re sitting in. The Knight Lab, which resembles a giant playroom for adults, is littered with technology, behind his shoulder is a wall-mounted television with more than half a dozen cell phones connected to it.
"They used C-SPAN because there's a transcript. People don't talk the way they write," Wise says succinctly, "but they were able to get something built and have a working prototype."
Maxine Paige Whitely worked on the SensorGrid Dashboard, which is a collection of nodes that gathers data about the local environment like temperature, dust, gas concentration and particulate matter. She explained that her team's "job" was to store and visualize the data collected.
"Our team was very tech-focused; most of our project focused on software development,” she said. “It was really fun to work in a new programming framework and I learned a lot with the support of our faculty adviser."
Singer agrees, saying, "It’s a unique, remarkable experience and a microcosm of what makes the Knight Lab’s interdisciplinary approach to learning and exploration so incredible."
Each quarter this popular course receives many more applications than they have spaces available to fill. Spring quarter will see some projects continuing and perhaps new ones beginning. To learn more about the class and sign up for a future offering, visit https://studio.knightlab.com.