New CRATEL class is up and blogging

2:42:30 PM CDT - Friday, February 03, 2006

By Shannon Littlejohn

"If you consider what engineers do and what artists do, we're both creators," said John Harrison, whose new class, Technology: Art and Sound by Design, is joining students of diverse backgrounds through art and technology projects.

In this class, the diversity is in discipline and philosophy literally, by degree. For the most part, the 20 students are pursuing degrees in either the fine arts or engineering.

The class is the first tangible effort tied to Harrison's brainchild, CRATEL (the Center for Research in Arts, Technology, Education and Learning), an idea inspired by the associate professor of violin's 2004-2005 fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he joined the Music, Mind and Machine Group at MIT's Media Laboratory.

"The media lab is a really interesting place because there's a very diverse group of people," said Harrison. "It's diverse in terms of discipline, it's diverse in terms of cultures."

For Harrison, who also serves as concertmaster for the Wichita Symphony, that's what CRATEL is all about.
The focus at the MIT lab is on "actually building things," Harrison said, that would integrate technology and interactive applications to change the way music is conceived, created, transmitted and experienced.

CRATEL's work space in C-6 Duerksen Fine Arts Center is modeled on the MIT lab concept, where ideas and questions beget more of the same. C-6 will serve as a lab and a place for students to hang out and brainstorm or build something, Harrison said.

"What does it mean for a computer to actually understand what it hears," he asks. "Can a computer understand what a musical phrase is, for example, by hearing it? The answer is, not yet."

One of the ideas that most attracts Harrison is, "Does technology give us a medium to connect diverse groups of people?"

That's where global learning comes in, he said.

"If you really had a computer that had some sense of what was going on in music, then it would have some sense of being able to predict it before it happened," Harrison said. "And once you have that, then you actually have a way for people in different parts of the world to make music together."

Video conferencing with Internet II allows people to play music together now, but with a half-second delay to receive and a half-second to return, the musicians hear each others' sounds a second late. If computers on each side understood what's going on, he said, those problems would be solved.

"One question I have is, what group of people would it take to solve a problem like that? If you get a bunch of engineers together, are they going to have the intuition with the onus of music to be able to create a system like that? You get a bunch of musicians together, are they going to have the understanding of machine learning, algorithms and things like that, and how to take their concepts of music and actually translate them into something the machine can understand?"

For right now, Harrison's class is busy talking past those kinds of barriers, coming up with final project ideas and creating their own Web blogs where they can document and discuss their work.

"This is not a course for students who want a regimented plan," said Harrison. "It's the first time we've taught this course; I don't have a model to follow. It's a huge experiment."

Already, his students' project ideas and dilemmas are generating excitement in the class, according to the blogs.
From an artist and gallery owner whose first idea involves motion sensors that trigger ambient sound (barking dogs, phones ringing, radio/TV sounds, foot fall, voices) as viewers traverse an exhibition space:

"So far, the coolest thing about (the) class is getting almost instantaneous feedback on ideas since I often work in isolation, it's a very new thing. it's really awesome to be able to talk to people who actually understand all this available technology."

From an arts student interested in Internet radio:

"What if we could create software similar to that of that glove, except for DJs? There would be sensors on the hand to track the finger movement and positions relative to a turntable spindle when a DJ is scratching records. "

 From an engineering student:

"I would like to work with a studio arts major to design a model of a human and design a display. The head would be able to move and communicate with preloaded sound files, and the display would show pictures or other 'artsy' things. "

And another from engineering:

"I would like to design a device that could be worn on the person's body as a wrist watch or head band or something like that. This device would assist musicians or vocalists (to) stay in the same key as the music is written in. "

Not all of the ideas will turn into actual projects; there are practical considerations (like cost). But as he checks the blogs, Harrison is glad to see progress from most students.

They can and should use their blogs to record what they tried to solve and how they solved it. That's another concept Harrison picked up at MIT that allowed him to review how he solved a particular problem.

The very phenomenon of blogging fascinates Harrison, too, especially in the way it can be used to reach new generations of students.

"What's going to speak more to a student but to see 20 Web sites all from students close to their age talking about the projects they did in this class," he said.

He also looks forward to having a student-run Internet radio station live by next fall. That idea has already inspired interest at the Elliott School of Communication and KMUW FM89, the public radio station that WSU hosts.

It's too early in CRATEL's life to tell, but when Harrison talks about people bringing their knowledge to each other, he can't help but wonder:

"Perhaps there's a huge universe of innovation."

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