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 Artists Create a World in Cyberspace

Seen through stereoscopic goggles, a shiny silver approximation of the Starship Enterprise suggests to the viewer that cyberspace might be the true final frontier.

High-performance computing experts and artists from throughout New England have recently been giving tours of that new territory. The Enterprise look-alike is one of more than a dozen virtual gizmos that make up ArtWorld, a demonstration developed by the High Performance Computing in the Arts consortium, which was created in Boston University's (BU) Office of Information Technology by the Scientific Computing and Visualization Group (SCV). Through the consortium, this Alliance partner is uniting computer specialists and artists from Boston-area colleges, universities, and businesses in creative endeavors.

Artist Image...

ArtWorld allows visitors to tour a "16th-century Martian toy store." The giant screen at SCV's ImmersaDesk, housed in a small blacklit room lined with speakers, makes for a convincing virtual setting. Navigating with an electronic wand and a special pair of 3D goggles that communicate the wearer's position to the computer, visitors move through a cavernous environment activating various graphics models -- wind-up toys, hobbyhorses, and dancing dolls -- each with a particular action and sound. One of the toy store's curious-looking denizens, a winged creature resembling a dragonfly, begins flapping around the room when visitors touch it with the wand. Its flapping sound follows it through surround speakers as it circles the visitors.

ArtWorld at
Supercomputing '98
Erik Brisson, manager of graphics programming for SCV, says ArtWorld's architects chose the unusual theme to give contributors creative freedom while ensuring a modicum of cohesion.

"First of all, it's whimsical," says Brisson, "and we wanted the exhibition to be fun. But we also wanted an idea that would not have stereotypes attached to it. With the 16th-century Martian toy store, we could basically do anything we wanted, but it was still a unified theme."

Artist Image.......

"We wanted to give the people some kind of context in which to work," adds Glenn Bresnahan, director of scientific computing and visualization, "but a context so strange that it wouldn't really limit them in any way: a Martian toy store, and let's say it's 16th-century because who knows what that means? Something to take a little bit of the science-fiction edge off it."

The virtual world created by Bresnahan and his colleagues extends beyond a toy-populated cave into two other settings: the planet's surface, re-created from photos of Mars taken by the Sojourner Rover, and a room containing a large, abstract painting. Produced by Deborah Cornell, BU assistant professor of visual arts, the painting contains several regions that emit music when touched with the wand. The compositions were contributed by Cornell's husband, Richard, a BU associate professor of music.

In addition to BU, the exhibition's participating artists and developers come from institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design, Massachusetts College of Art, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. The opportunity to utilize BU's high-performance equipment, Bresnahan says, is a rare and important one for these artists.

Artist Image.......

"When these new technologies arrive, they're typically only in the high-end research labs, available only to small groups of engineers and scientists," he says. "We're trying to bring those technologies out to other communities that are underrepresented -- specifically, the art community."

As a partner in the Alliance, Boston University is committed to expanding the traditional parameters of computing with such interdisciplinary collaborations.

Artist Image.......

"The purpose of the Alliance is to prototype the computer infrastructure of the next century," says Roscoe Giles, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at BU and a member of the Alliance's Executive Committee as well as coordinator for its education and outreach program. "Its original formulation had it first supporting science, engineering, and mathematics -- research areas within the usual purview of the National Science Foundation, which funds the Alliance. What one looks forward to seeing, and ArtWorld is a terrific example, is more and more use of these advanced systems in the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences -- in all areas of scholarship and human activity. ArtWorld exemplifies a transition that needs naturally to happen if Alliance is to be a success."

Such a transition pays dividends in the science and art communities. Brisson says that putting their work in the service of an artistic goal helps the computer experts realize, and test, the limits of their technology.

"People use what we create, so we aren't working in a vacuum," says Brisson. "We get input and fresh ideas that make our work more interesting. We have the artists' needs and demands driving our work. We get to interact with them -- cross-boundary communication. And it forces us to deal with computing environments that we otherwise wouldn't, like graphics on PCs and Macs. That's what people are using out in the real world."


Access Online | Posted 10-6-1998