The Science of Art, The Art of Science

A new program fosters collaborations across UNM

The audience sits transfixed...first the huge dome-shaped ceiling above them fills with outsized, translucent jellyfish that float and pulse in space. Then multicolored graphics of fractals blossom like giant flowers above their heads. Next 20-foot tall people garbed in bright costumes sway to the beat of a drum as they surround the onlookers and dance along the roof line. Is this an off-the-wall movie? Performance art? Science? New technology? Actually, it's a little bit of each.

It's DomeFest, a digital exhibition which brings artists and scientists from around the world together to create content for a planetarium that sur-rounds the viewer with stunning digital images. DomeFest is produced, hosted, and funded by the LodeStar Astronomy Center, a UNM museum located at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque. Not only is DomeFest captivating, it's also an example of how the combination of art, science, and technology can generate economic potential, new research, and new frontiers for learning.

Two presentations shown at DomeFest were from a new initiative called the Art, Research, Technology, and Science Laboratory, or ARTS Lab. In 2003, Ed Angel, professor of computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and media arts, gathered a team of UNM faculty, students, administrators, artists, and others to brainstorm how UNM could support the state's burgeoning film and digital media industry. New Mexico's film industry had an $80 million impact on the state in 2003, up from just $8 million the year before. By 2004, the industry had grown to $250 million.

ARTS Lab was one result of the meeting. The program, funded by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's Media Industries Strategic Project, is changing the way UNM students and researchers from disparate disciplines work together. The lab, which became official at the beginning of this year, is both a physical place and an innovative interdisciplinary center. There are several locations on and off campus that house equipment used by ARTS Lab participants, and a major expansion of the lab’s facilities is underway.

The vision of ARTS Lab is to become a catalyst for education and research that will grow and sustain an advanced media industry in New Mexico. Angel calls ARTS Lab a matchmaking service that brings together students, faculty, and researchers from around the university to collaborate on innovative digital arts and science projects, many with economic potential. Computer engineers and fine artists work together to create aesthetically pleasing spaces in virtual reality. Doctors, musicians, engineers, and artists develop a virtual patient to train medical students. Media artists and animators turn mathematical equations into beautiful graphics. An electrical engineering graduate teaches Native American children how to use digital media.

A Giant Curved Canvas

The "fulldome" at the LodeStar Astronomy Center is a spectacular canvas for ARTS Lab projects. The dome, 55-feet in diameter, uses six projectors and seven computers to fill the space with millions of pixels and surround viewers with panoramic digital images. By day, LodeStar is a planetarium where museum goers zoom through constellations and experience some of the world's best astronomy and astrophysics educational shows. At night, UNM students, researchers, faculty, and museum employees use the dome as a canvas for their digital films and scientific visualizations. They're also evaluating the dome’s potential for supporting research and education in the arts and sciences.

Another ARTS Lab and LodeStar collaboration blends art, education, and economic development. Arrow to the Sun, an award-winning children's book about a Native American child's journey to the sun, is being adapted for viewing on the dome. The author, Gerald McDermott, is working with Hue Walker of the ARTS Lab, LodeStar, and school children from the Zuni Pueblo to animate the book and weave science education into the story. UNM School of Engineering graduate Shaun Tsabetsaye is organizing the effort with the pueblo. (See UNM Engineering, Spring 2004.) When the project, which is funded in part by the National Science Foundation through the Digital Pueblo Project, is complete, it will be distributed worldwide.

Collaborating to Create New Worlds

Thomas Preston Caudell, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, includes in his research program the study of information visualization, research that goes beyond visualizing physical calculations and measurements to include elements that don't have natural interpretations. He's worked with artists and musicians for years because they enhance his research. "We bring artists and their creative palette of tools to the table to help us interpret and represent data in more comprehensive ways. There's no way I could accomplish my long-term scientific goals without their help," he explains.

Caudell says the ARTS Lab is facilitating the way he works. "The ARTS Lab makes it a much easier process. I've seen it already. People are coming together with the common interest of arts, research, science, and technology. We share a common vision of the value of our interdisciplinary work."

Caudell, along with fellow researchers at UNM and the University of Hawaii (UOH) are leading a team of engineers, doctors, medical students, artists, and musicians on The Touch Project, a patient simulator for the UNM and UOH Schools of Medicine. By combining engineering, medicine, and art, the team created a fully-immersive virtual patient that helps medical students improve their diagnostic skills. Students enter the virtual environment and diagnose a patient who has suffered an accident. An underlying artificial-intelligence system controls the complete simulation, provides the knowledge content, and monitors the efficacy and timeliness of the student's decision-making process.

To create The Touch Project, the team started with Flatland, a program Caudell wrote with his students to create general interactive three-dimensional virtual spaces. Artists applied their talent to help design a lifelike patient and environment. In collaboration with Panaiotis, a research professor in the UNM Music Department, ambient and patient sounds were created to enhance the environment. Then doctors on the team provided the pertinent medical information. It was an effective collaboration. "Medical students who have used the virtual environment in controlled experiments came closer to an expert’s knowledge," says Caudell. He and his colleagues are now working with digital gaming companies and federal funding agencies to expand the tool to include other medical scenarios.

The Digital Garage

The potential for more creative ARTS Lab projects will grow exponentially with the opening of The Digital Media Garage later this fall. "The Garage" is a new $2 million, 7,000 sq. ft. facility that will be filled with digital media equipment, including high-performance computers, a blue screen area, a lighting grid, and a black-box studio with a motion capture system. The facility's centerpiece will be a 15-foot diameter dome with a projection system identical to LodeStar's.

Angel says The Garage will be an excellent meeting ground for people interested in digital media. "This is going to involve people in music, theater, dance, engineering, and the High Performance Computing Center. They'll all be working together in a big, collaborative environment where people can talk with each other and experiment," says Angel.

This innovative, synergistic spirit is not just growing the state's film and digital media industry and creating jobs, Angel adds. "The ARTS Lab represents a collaboration of arts and sciences and a whole new way of working at UNM. It has enormous economic development potential for New Mexico."