Wood that stirs to life whenever someone walks by. A pedestal that plays music, inspired by the scattering of clear cubes across its top. A train skylight through which subway passengers can see past the dirt and concrete to the streets above.
Students and researchers at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) in New York University's Tisch School of the Arts are using the availability of cheap microcontrollers, multimedia computers, and ubiquitous data networks to create artworks with a surprising depth of imagination and responsiveness. Their creations are part of an effort to fit technology to human needs. Along the way have come new approaches to enabling the disabled and educating the young and the old.
The program employs video, Web, and other interactive technologies. Those attracted to ITP range from artists who want to work in a new medium to a pediatrician who wants to use child-friendly technologies in her medical practice.
Red Burns, a founder of the program and its current chair, explained the ITP's goal. "We want to nurture a new kind of communications professional," she said, "people who can be concrete and yet imaginative, who can question, and whose knowledge of technology is really informed by a very strong ethical and aesthetic sense." For Burns, such an approach is vital to dealing with new technologies, because every one of them brings with it a Faustian bargain of unintended consequences. But "the fact that technology has a downside doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, it means we have to be aware of [that downside]," she said.
Burns wants people to think about using technology. To illustrate her point, she described a visit to a medical school to discuss a collaboration with the ITP. There she witnessed a laparoscopic procedure, during which a monitor mounted on the ceiling displayed video images from inside the patient. The surgeon had to manipulate his instruments while craning his neck and looking up at the monitor above. When Burns asked why the monitor was not placed at eye level, the surgeon responded, "Oh! Can you move the monitor? That would be great!" He had never thought to challenge how the laparoscopic technology was being implemented.
It is a willingness to criticize and explore different facets of technology that attracts funding from the ITP's sponsors, which include companies such as Intel and Microsoft. But sponsors do not direct research and do not receive any deliverables. According to Daniel Rozin, director of research and an adjunct professor with the program, these companies realize that they are narrowly focused on competing in today's market. "I don't think they can afford to...explore little niches [but] some of these niches turn out to be the mainstream of tomorrow. It's important to have artists like us exploring these niches. When they come and see what we've done, it inspires them."
The ITP was founded over 20 years ago as an outgrowth of early experiments with public cable and broadcast television systems. ITP is a graduate program, and students come with backgrounds ranging from electrical engineering to music composition. Their unifying credentials are "curiosity and imagination."
The program's credo is that artists and humanists have a great deal to contribute to providing society with a more informed view of technology. A critical and human-centered approach is "the only defense [against bad or inappropriate technology] I can think of," she explained.
The following pages present a selection of works from the ITP.
The Wooden Mirror is an impressive physical presence, over 2 meters tall and 1.5 meters wide. Move in front of it, and its surface of wooden tiles comes alive. The tiles tilt up and down, and the resulting pattern of light and shade creates an image of whatever is before the mirror. Movement is reflected instantly by the tiles in ripples of motion, accompanied by a rustling sound reminiscent of a stiff breeze in a forest. To enable the mirror to create real-time images, artist Daniel Rozin connected a small videocamera in the mirror's center to a Macintosh computer. The image seen by the camera is digitized by the computer and reduced to a 35-by-29-pixel image with an 8-bit grayscale. The computer analyzes the differences between the current image and the previous frame and sends commands only to those tiles that need to be changed, using software written by Rozin. The tiles are tilted by a total of 830 servomotors, one per tile [photo], connected to a series of microcontrollers that are linked by serial lines to the Macintosh. Each tile can take up one of 255 positions to form the image, although in regular lighting conditions typically only 10 or 12 levels of gray can be discerned. Depending on how much activity it is mimicking, the mirror can refresh between 5 and 10 times a second.
"In many ways, this is the essence of what we try to do here: taking the power of digital computation and concealing it to see how it influences something more in touch with the human condition. Wood doesn't want to be very digital, each tile is slightly different. But computation can take all this randomness and messiness and put it into an order....The piece is on the line between analog and physical vs. digital and computational," explained creator Rozin, shown sitting in front of his creation [right].
Rozin also strove to eliminate the concept of an interface. An interface "means putting some sort of membrane between you and the experience. With this, you understand immediately that it's a mirror, you know how to operate it, and no interface is involved."