Wednesday, June 26, 2013

If you are not already aware, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (the museum with all of the great Dutch Old Masters) just reopened in April after a decade-long renovation that greatly curbed the number of works on display and available to the public (although what was on display was fantastic). Amid the general euphoria at the opening, the folks at the Rijksmuseum did something quite interesting on their website: they made freely accessible some tens of thousands of super-high resolution jpegs of works within the collection (and have plans eventually to make everything in the collection available), and not just for the standard scholarly purposes. If you want to do something creative with a work (or portion of a work) have at it. Want to trick out your scooter as a Ming-porcelain ride? Why not. A t-shirt? Of course! A Jan Davidsz. de Heem body tattoo? It's how the Rijksmuseum crew announced their Rijksstudio venture at the annual "Museum and the Web" conference in Portland, Oregon this past spring, passing out free examples of the De Heem tattoo to any and all interested participants (and they won an award for their Rijksstudio project). In essence the Rijksmuseum is trusting the public with the images of the objects it holds in sacred trust for the public. Sharing: it really is refreshing (and creativity-inducing!).

I've been thinking a bit about sharing because it's everywhere in our networked, web 2.0 (and 3.0 is on the way) world. Wikipedia, OpenStreet, codeacademy, piratepad, four flecks comprising the merest tip of a gargantuan iceberg of a sharing of ideas that is socially oriented, and digitally-enabled and -enhanced. But, strangely enough, such sharing is not always structurally promoted in a university setting. Oh sure, digital platforms like Canvas or BlackBoard are brimming with tools - wikis, blogs, collaboration spaces - that are all about sharing among students and with their teachers, but at the advanced levels - graduate and faculty - sharing is a rarer species of bird. It is not hard to understand why: the advancement system for faculty and graduate students privileges, is founded upon, the idea of individual, original effort and recognition of outstanding scholarship (it's not scholarship, after all!). And this recognition is good, after all. Who doesn't want their hard work acknowledged, their efforts protected against the effortless duplication so widely available by so many means?

So, how to harness the power of technology, which almost by design these days wants to share, with an age-old imperative to protect ideas and sources? Really, I don't know, but I am struck by a compelling case, one that was shared with me by Matt Lincoln, who in turn passed it on from Abram Fox. Two humanist scholars, Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, each working independently of one another initially, brought together in a volume last Fall of Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: a journal of nineteenth-century visual culture, their respective projects visualizing data about nineteenth-century London and its art markets. Titled "Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London's Art Market," this essay is an excellent example of the virtues of collaboration, and of the knowledge (and questions) to be accessed via database building, mining and manipulation. The authors clearly are eager to share their findings (their excitement is palpable), as they also are eager for their approach, for their data, to be picked up, to be expanded upon, by others. It really is an exciting moment in academic scholarship, one where productive sharing is demonstrated to great effect without a diminishment of the scholars' individual efforts. At the close of their essay they sound a clarion call for skeptics of this approach (and really, how can there be such skeptics after such persuasive analyses?):

"These new modes of analysis both support paradigm shifts in the discipline—the spatial turn and the recognition of transnational mobilities—and allow us to reinvigorate traditional questions regarding an artist's career and provenance. So, we close on a note both cautionary and liberating. For those colleagues who argue that the test of the validity of the digital humanities is what new questions these new modes of analysis and dissemination make possible, we suggest that we do not have to wait for new questions to emerge from the methodology. The digital humanities allow us to address both questions regarded as core to the discipline's formation of knowledge and inquiries that stimulate new interdisciplinary perspectives."

Sharing. It's a good thing. Let's see a bit more of it in the humanities, and let's see innovative approaches that depend on sharing rewarded in a manner befitting.


Seeing the unseen
Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Data visualization (data viz among the human-computer interaction community), which is making visible the relationships between sets of data, abounds in our hyper-kinectic and hyper-connected world. From the ubiquitous word clouds (tag clouds) to the all-too familiar maps of the United States political landscape (especially during elections!) to real-time traffic condition maps accessible on our smart phones, we might find it hard these days to get through a day without one good visualization. The really good data visualization draws the mind to meaningful relationships and conclusions one might otherwise never have discovered. A good data visualization also can take a known fact or concept and amplify its significance, often in haunting, beautiful and profound ways.

Data visualization has been an area of intense activity in universities for maybe two decades, but particularly the last decade there has been tremendous growth both in the scope and sophistication of projects of inquiry and in the reputation such centers of inquiry have earned, such as MITH here at UMD. You know you've arrived when there are bi-annual or yearly globe-hopping conferences to attend!

So where does Art History fit in all of this? How does a field that deals with the visual, with the created visible object, make use of data visualization? As you might imagine, the earliest forays in data visualization concentrated on bringing to the eye that which no longer is visible or visitable, often with stunning results. This data visualization is called modeling, but it is data visualization just the same, the best of the models made after painstaking research and study of relevant archaeological or archival materials. The Rome Reborn project, a joint IATH (UVa) and Visualization Portal (UCLA) venture, and Lisa Snyder's ongoing reconstruction of the The World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago at the Urban Simulation Team (UCLA) are two excellent examples. Indeed, the Collaboratory's visualization space, with its large, curved screen, privileges the viewing of such immersive models. Beyond that, what is there in data visualization for Art History? Better asked, how might Art History make use of the powerful tool of data visualization?

Over the past three years here in the Collaboratory we have focused alot on creating maps and tours in Google Earth that could prove useful to teaching in the classroom (and look for some exciting, interactive developments with our extant maps sometime later this summer!). Matthew Lincoln, one the past Spring's graduate assistants in the digital humanities and working here in that capacity for the summer, saw intriguing possibilities in those early maps and their awkward interconnectivity, especially with specific placemarks, and set out to do something a little different, that is to visualize a primary text, Albrecht Durer's diary account of his travels to the Netherlands in 1520-21. An extremely detailed accounting of the artist's travels, the diary offers art historians a feast of data that when visualized can exist independent of the sequential narrative in which they are found and thereby take on new life and new meaning. One is not bound to the sequence of the diary itself but can explore via discrete nodes of time or places on a map, with the relevant pages from the diary or images of works mentioned readily available for quick consumption. This interaction is made possible by the fact that the primary text has been turned into a relational database by careful coding of the text so that, for instance, a placename is identified as something to be geolocated, and a work of art can be tagged and associated with a jpeg file of it. That relational database then can be translated into, in this case, a Google Earth visualization. More importantly, it can be translated in different directions, depending on the type of visualization one wishes. As well, because Durer's text now is a base table of cells of data, it can be merged with other databases, say of artists active around the time of Durer's trip, rendering visible possible connections not mentioned in the text.

As impressive as is this Spring project, Matt is not done. Currently he is trying to access XML tables of artists biographies (think Getty's ULAN) and integrate those into a data visualization of the movements of Dutch and Flemish still life artists over the course of their careers, an idea first conceived and tentatively mapped out in Google Earth by another graduate student in the Department, Kristi Jamrisko. If you happen to be at the THATcamp Prime  at George Mason University this Friday and Saturday, you'll undoubtedly get a sneak peek and can help Matt think through the challenges of visualizing data that is not always so precise (what does one do with circa dates, after all?). Matt's work is worth keeping an eye on, as is his excellent blog.


How cool is this!
Wednesday, May 1, 2013

<Hack, Hack!> <Cough!>

So, sorry about the day delay, but I fear the East Coast pollen worked its dark magic on my upper respiratory system the past few days.

However, despite a perceptual fog, I came across this little bit of tech news that has me wondering at the possibilities just around the corner and their implications: Microsoft Research is unveiling at the CHI (Computer Human Interface) conference in Paris (possibly as I write this!), a system - still in development - that expands (explodes!) the fictive space of the screen beyond its boundaries to fill a room! It's like the Star Trek Holodeck!

Called IllumiRoom I'd not be at all surprised if this tech is on offer to consumers by this coming Christmas, next Christmas at the latest (hey, it's a consumer-driven market). What I find interesting about this tech, from what little I've seen thus far, is how it amplifies space so that we sense it and ourselves in it in a way different than the translation we make with a normal screen. This desire for immersive space is the principal reason behind the projection screen in the Collaboratory. However, what I find intriguing in the case of the IllumiRoom is that the focus remains straight ahead, on the screen - the peripheral remains the peripheral until it becomes the central focus (perhaps as a head - or even eyes! - move to refocus).

Regardless, a super cool toy (I mean, tool! :-)

On a completely unrelated note, I do want to note that today our department will celebrate with a party the great career of one of our stalwart faculty, Dr. Marjorie Venit, who will retire at the conclusion of this semester. She certainly deserves a "hurrah" and a piece of cake and her presence in these halls will be noted and missed.


A Pretty Cool Day in the Collaboratory
Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Yesterday afternoon a former student of mine came by, as we had planned, at 3 to make some measurements of the Collaboratory's screen wall and to consider anew and fresh the challenge of creating a Kinect-fueled interactive environment for users of this space. Almost immediately after opening the Collaboratory four years ago, while watching a graduate student in Architecture interact with his sketchup model of a bike shop using a wii-controller-enhanced form of interaction (eternal kudos to Johnny Lee for that bit of discovery), I realized that this space would not be fully complete until somehow we achieved a fairly robust and stable form of interaction across the entire screen, one that would be fairly natural and gesture-based (unfortunately the projection wall is expertly-formed drywall, so electrical conductivity long has been a non-starter as an intervention).

Last spring four students from the Digital Cultures and Creativity program that is part of the Honors College, under the impassioned and expert guidance of Jarah Moesch, a sort of super GA there, met weekly with me in the Collaboratory to try and tackle this problem. The group made some good progress, as the picture above reveals, but in the end time worked against their achieving the lofty goals set in late January, mostly because of a stubborn install of the base environment that would enable the Kinect and computer to effect the refined translation of movement needed to, for instance, grasp and move objects within a sketchup environment.

The path of breakthroughs often is mapped by previous efforts and that group's work provides a lessons-learned dossier that informs a renewed approach by the working group forming for the fall that gives me hope in their ultimate success. Also they will have at least one more tool in their kit: some months ago I pre-ordered a small device, probably the size of an ipod, that will begin shipping in about three weeks. Called Leap Motion, it is an optical device and controller that employs an array of LEDs and underlying algorithms that substantially refine a computer's ability to "see" discrete movements and gesture and by this allow one to do far more than even has been achieved with Kinect controllers. One of the lead scientists and engineers on this project used to work at NOAA, developing instrumentation that could see and thus read measurements of particular gasses in the atmosphere. As one blog commenter put it (and I paraphrase), "he probably can devise an algorithm to sort out fingers from air." That Leap Motion is going to be a bit of a big deal may be inferred by two facts, one just announced yesterday as part of Earth Day: Google Earth will be providing support for this controller environment (explore the globe through gesture - a fairly natural fit I would think), and HP plans on bundling Leap Motion as a 3-D controller in a number of its laptop configurations. That other companies are making this gamble makes me think that introductory videos I have seen may be spot on.

So, yesterday's visit by my former student (whose approach already has me excited because he is considering the underlying geometry of the problem) signalled great things to come in the Collaboratory, just over the horizon.


The other happening in the Collaboratory yesterday that has me somewhat pleased and content involved a last-minute arrangement to use the Collaboratory for a class session. Alex Libby, a doctoral candidate working with Arthur Wheelock, was filling in for him in his Dutch and Flemish Baroque class yesterday afternoon while he is abroad this week. Alex was covering how the Dutch approached perspective, at which they were quite adept, and she hoped to use a sketchup model demonstrating perspective using a Saenredam painting created by a former GA in the Collaboratory, Sophia Lee, herself a doctoral candidate working with Arthur Wheelock. Okay, so I was pretty pleased that Sophia's model, which she made at my suggestion and under my supervision, was going to get some use. But then I realized that the model probably would not work in the classroom because the general tech classrooms only have the free version of sketchup installed, while this version was made with the pro version, using a feature only available in the pro version, the ability to set or endow certain objects with basic movements (i.e. - opening a door). Sophia had employed that action to enable a user, using the "magical clicking finger" (as I like to call the tool in sketchup), to swing a part of the perspective diagram - the line from the vanishing point to the distance point - out into space and to situate the viewer's perspective at that point before the painting, thereby providing the ideal viewing point from which to view the painting as the artist intended and experience an enhancement of the fictive space, in this case of a church interior. It's a way of visualizing a somewhat abstract idea that, when rendered in print, can be somewhat hard to figure out (at least for slow turners like me). I haven't canvassed the class yet, but I bet they have a more natural, more intuitive, understanding of the distance point than had they not had that experience in the Collaboratory yesterday. Also, they really liked seeing the normal powerpoint images in the space (it is pretty cool, after all).

All in all a good Monday afternoon.


MOOCing and other ruminations
Tuesday, April 16, 2013

So, this is the initial installment of this blog, Nexus. Here goes (after an initial post was lost to the ether....)

MOOCs (Massive[ly] Open Online Courses) recently have been all over the news, both general and academic, as institutions, faculty and students grapple with the implications of what, at its essence, is a disruptive technology intervention. But is this disruption a bad thing? To judge the headlines and memes of many of the articles from the past year, no. However, important dissents sound a worthy note of caution, especially for us in the humanities. How exactly are MOOCs to replicate, or better yet exceed, that in-classroom experience with which so many of us - as students and as teachers - are familiar and in which sustained scholarly inquiry and deep thinking first fire? Where is the give and take, the exchange, the "aha" moment between teacher and student in an online experience featuring a cast of thousands? Answers to these questions have yet to satisfy, but important initiatives, both in the Collaboratory and at the University, offer some reassurance that our academic embrace of MOOCs will be thoughtful and nuanced.

Here in the Collaboratory this semester the Graduate Assistants have been working on individual projects and initiatives tackling some facet of the question "how can technology improve learning in the classroom?" They have been coming up with some really cool and fantastic applications of extant technology. As important, if not more so, are their weekly meetings with each other and Prof. Renee Ater and Lauree Sails, during which they have been taking up the question of MOOCs. By the time these graduate students hit the job market, the ways in which professors teach almost certainly will be profoundly altered and because of their early engagement with the questions surrounding online education these students will be in a strong position to bend the technology to fostering those "aha" moments.

The other recent development on campus happened last week, when Ben Bederson, Professor in Computer Sciences and a past Director of the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory (HCIL) communicated to that group's listserv his new role on campus: beginning immediately Prof. Bederson will spend 50% of his considerable working energy as Special Advisor to the Provost on Technology and Educational Transformation. In his own words:

"Recently, there has been a confluence of pedagogical interest and technological advancement which has made technology a strategic interest at UMD and at universities around the world. There are MOOCs (such as Coursera, Udacity and EdX), online classes, and any number of hybrid approaches. "Blended" educational environments combine face-to-face and electronic classrooms, and "flipping" the classroom (lectures online and face-to-face classes for more active, engaged learning) are just some of the strategies that instructors are pursuing....   So it shouldn't be a surprise that our campus is looking closely at all of these trends while our faculty are actively experimenting with these approaches. The opportunities (and risks) here are significant enough that the Provost has asked me to help her develop a strategy to best infuse technology into education throughout campus...   As you may imagine, I am very excited because it not only enables me to help UMD continue to develop our leadership and excellence - but it also will enable me to increase the domain expertise and reach in my HCI research. I had already shifted much of my teaching and research to relate to technology and education, and now I will have unprecedented access to stakeholders across campus and beyond. The opportunities for innovation, study, and publishable research in this space are tremendous."

I am heartened by this news, because Professor Bederson over the years has demonstrated a profound ability to balance an emphatic awareness of the human experience and our needs within that with the thrilling and awesome capabilities of raw computing power. I well can imagine that he will apply a critical and dispassionate mind to the various forms of technologically-driven pedagogical change currently contemplated and being effected on campus and seek to strengthen what works and cull what does not. He also will listen, so we should engage him at every opportunity offered.

Finally, this Thursday, the last installment of this academic year's College of Arts and Humanities Dean's Lecture Series features Dr. Cathy Davidson of Duke University, who will speak on the coming transformation in higher education and why we should embrace it. Attentive, if appropriately skeptical, listening a must!