Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saving the World Through Compassion and Discernment

In preparation for making meaningful New Year's resolutions I just read an important book I recommend to all my friends of any religious, agnostic, or atheistic beliefs. I am not a Buddhist myself but the fourteenth Dalai Lama has a new book out called "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World" that is wise, considered and surprising.

The first surprise of course is the title, "Beyond Religion," coming from someone who is considered to be one of the World's great religious leaders. The book shows that the Dalai Lama is more of a universal spiritual leader than simply a spokesperson for his Buddhist religion. The message of the title is that the problems facing the planet will logically require a more universal viewpoint that goes beyond the limited beliefs and practices of any one religion.

A second surprising argument is that ethical and moral values do not require religious faith. Ethical and moral actions exist outside of religious faiths as well as in them and these values can and must be learned and assimilated by anyone regardless of religious training or not.

Other surprising elements include the Dalai Lama's statement that if science finds new knowledge that calls into question ideas put forth in religious teachings, we must be willing to change our minds and adopt the new knowledge. This enlightened approach is not held by many faith-based religious adherents so it is worth reading about how he has arrived at this startlingly sensible stance.

The main message is that we must actively engage in compassion and empathy toward everyone and everything on the planet if we ever hope to see peace on Earth. And secondly, we must practice discernment because the right path is not always clear and uncomplicated but requires thoughtful decision-making in which either course of action might have positive and negative effects. Practicing careful discernment is the only way we can determine the better path.

Click below to hear the Dalai Lama's ideas voiced by the actor Martin Sheen. I wish us all compassion and discernment in the New Year.

Holographic Television May Be Coming Sooner Than We Think

Holographic imagery, while successfully demonstrated decades ago, is taking a long time to become technically and commercially viable so people have understandably become skeptical about claims for holographic television appearing any time soon. Although claims for holographic TV have long been touted as the next big thing in the distant future, a Leuven, Belgium-based R&D lab for nanoelectronics has come up with a process that might bring holographic images closer to realtime (left). They already have images approaching the futuristic holography popularized in the Star Wars movies (right).

Researchers believe that holographic images are the answer to resolving the eye strain and headaches that go along with present-day 3-D viewing. The research lab Imec, says “Holographic visualization promises to offer a natural 3-D experience for multiple viewers, without the undesirable side-effects of current 3D stereoscopic visualization (uncomfortable glasses, strained eyes, fatiguing experience).” They hope to construct the first, proof-of-concept moving structures by mid-2012.

Researchers at MIT have also said they are closing in on holographic TV by building a system with a refresh rate of 15 frames per second, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) completed a five-year project called “Urban Photonic Sandtable Display” that creates realtime, color, 360-degree 3-D holographic displays.

Although the technology is developed enough for scientists to know holographic TV is possible if not inevitable, there are many details to be worked out concerning things like frame rates, angle of viewing, resolution and color-correction.

Click on the video below to see the future of holographic television.

Perception is a Powerful Activity

One of the biggest drawbacks to successfully transforming education and enhancing student learning is a persistent but mistaken idea that visual thinking is not as important to human learning, thinking and communicating as are reading, writing and mathematics.

Many people maintain a mistaken idea about the role of visual perception in human learning. For example, many people mistakenly think watching a movie or looking at a picture is a passive activity while reading is more active. Students are often admonished for watching "too much" TV, movies, videos, video games or other images but are seldom told they are reading too much. This is because of a story we have mistakenly told ourselves that the brain is more active when reading than when looking at something. This is a bad story that has held back learning for generations.

Current scientific evidence shows that rather than being a passive state, perception is an active process fueled by predictions and expectations about our environment. Memory is a fundamental component in the way our brain generates expectations and predictions that precede perceptual experience.

Recently, researchers in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford showed how Long Term Memory optimizes perception by varying brain states associated with anticipation of spatial localization in the visual field by devising a method for integrating memory and attention. The scientists used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to trace a neural network involving a number of areas of the brain likely to be active in the predictive use of memory in the visual cortex (the occipital lobe shown in dark blue on left).

Click on the heading above to read about the research showing how long term memory and perception are intertwined.

Visualizing a Stone Age Ancestor

Strong visualization skills are important in science as well as art. Using scientific tools and strong visualization skills, two Dutch reconstruction experts, Adrie and Alfons Kennis, have created a new version of the appearance of a stone age man referred to as Ötzi based on examinations of a mummified body found in the ice and knowledge of what the faces, hands and skin of modern-day people who live mostly outdoors look like.

Ötzi, named after the Ötztal Alps in Italy where he was found, was a weather-beaten and muscular man who died 5,300 years ago. Ötzi the iceman is Europe's oldest natural human mummy and has been reconstructed more accurately than ever before, based on data obtained from CT scans, X-rays and DNA analyses. Ötzi died in a high mountain pass in Italy and was covered by ice. He was buried for millennia until two German hikers found him in 1991.

Ötzi stood 5 feet 3 inches and was around 46 years old when he died after being wounded in the shoulder by an arrow. The Kennises chose to portray Ötzi bare-chested to show how muscular he was, though in reality he was dressed for the harsh weather of the Alps when he died, wearing animal hide, a cap and an insulating grass cape.

Click on the video below to see part of a documentary showing how Ötzi might have lived and died.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Wishes from Dreamworks

I just received my online Holiday Wishes card from Dreamworks Animation and thought people might enjoy seeing some of their favorite animated characters from six of Dreamwork's animated films wishing us all a Happy Holiday.

Dreamworks SKG was founded with three divisions - Film production headed by Steven Spielberg; Animation headed by Jeffrey Katzenberg; and Music headed by David Geffen. The music division was closed in 2005. The company was founded following Katzenberg's resignation from Disney Enterprises Inc. in 1994. At the suggestion of a friend of Spielberg, the two made an agreement with long-time Katzenberg collaborator David Geffen to start their own studio. The studio was officially founded on October 12, 1994 with financial backing of $33 million from each of the three main partners and $500 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Click below to see the video greeting card from Dreamworks Animation.

James Gurney Integrates Science and Illustration

Art teachers are often looking for ways to integrate the arts with other subject areas. With the addition of design to the curriculum there is no need to make up superficial ways to integrate with other subject areas because integration is a natural part of the process. An illustrator like James Gurney (left), for example, integrates science in a variety of ways even in his fantasy illustrations of dinosaurs in his popular "Dinotopia" book series (right).

Gurney's knowledge of real science is so strong that he is often called upon to provide illustrations for Scientific American magazine. In addition, he applies scientific principles of visual perception in his work to gain the most compelling visual effects. Our eyes are often fooled by the variation in colors seen in shadow, sunlight, or different colored lights. Gurney has made careful studies of these effects.

Click on the video below of Gurney talking about creating an illustration for Scientific American. In the video he describes his process for doing an illustration depicting a 90-million-year-old scene of dinosaurs becoming trapped in mud. Students should be aware of the amazing amount of background research Gurney does to create his illustrations. In art class we often jump right to the finished product without the research, preliminary studies and exploration necessary for high quality results. If students are interested in scientific illustration, James Gurney is one of the masters.

What Will the Future Bring in 5 Years?

For the past six years, IBM has been issuing their 5 in 5 reports that present their vision of what technologies will mature in the next 5 years and become commonplace.

Their list for 2011 (left) includes innovations that have the potential to change the way people work, live and interact during the next five years. This year's five in five are:

Energy - People power will come to life; in addition to smaller, longer life batteries we will capture more of our own movements, the water in home pipes, bicycles, and ocean waves to convert it into useable energy.
Security - You will never need a password again; Biometric passwords like retinal scans and voice recognition will become more common so we don't have to remember a dozen different passwords.
Interfaces - Mind reading is no longer science fiction; Keyboards, the mouse, and voice recognition will be joined by another way to interact with computers - tapping into our own brain waves and transforming them into commands.
Access - The digital divide will cease to exist; 80% of the 7 billion people on the planet will have access to technology in the next 5 years.
Analytics - Junk mail will become priority mail. Our devices will gather and use information without our having to ask for it. Booking events, changing our schedules based on the weather, and even online purchases will be done for us automatically based on our known desires and preferences.

The IBM 5 in 5 is based on market and societal trends as well as emerging technologies from IBM's research labs around the world that can make these transformations possible. You can find earlier predictions online to see how accurate they have been in the past.

Click on the heading above to see IBM's video announcing this year's 5 in 5 forecast.

'Tis the Season for Gingerbread Houses

Building gingerbread houses for the holidays provides an opportunity to introduce a bit of architecture education. It is not the best example because most people see gingerbread houses as objects (3D) rather than enclosures of space (4D) so there is a bit of mis-education by confusing 3D product design (a gingerbread house) and 4D spatial design (an architect's model) in people's minds.

There is a term in architecture called "gingerbread" which refers to elaborately detailed, lavish and often superfluous embellishment on Victorian houses popularized in the late 1860s and ’70s (right). After the Civil War it was fashionable to have every surface of buildings decorated with fanciful hand-carved wooden latticework to signal affluence. There was later a general reaction against that practice when architects like Louis Sullivan decreed "Less is more."

When we talk about gingerbread houses at the holidays we mean the baked cookie variety in which any style of architecture can be attempted from William Van Alen’s art-deco Chrysler Building; Charles and Ray Eames’ modern Pacific Palisades Case Study House No. 8; Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House; to Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome. Click on the heading above to see these examples.

In the example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (left), the brick façade is depicted with stacked SweetTarts and creating the unsupported cantilevered decks is as much a problem in gingerbread as it was in the original. (The secret in both is concealed i-beams with sufficient tensile strength.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Jane Jacobs Shook Up City Planning 50 Years Ago

2011 was the 50th anniversary of the hugely important book by Jane Jacobs (right) (1916-2006), "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961) (left). Jacobs is one person every student should learn about in schools because she influenced the development of New York City and, in turn, shaped ideas about city planning across the country. Urban planning is part of 4D spatial design which also includes architecture, landscape architecture and interior design.

Some of her key ideas included:
Cities need to be walkable. This means that cities shouldn't be disrupted by freeways, large parks and big plots that break the pedestrian's ability to walk through the city. Isolated housing projects, large super blocks surrounded by isolated landscapes or parking such as large shopping centers and industrial sites surrounded by parking; large hospitals; and even large university campuses.

Cities need to resist gentrification by not automatically demolishing old buildings and building high rises, but by going into depressed areas and regenerating them. Jacobs did not say don't do new buildings, but she said keep a mix. Avoid scraping away all existing context, in exchange for new, untested, and out of scale projects.

Density of people is a valuable characteristic of cities, but is not an end in itself. Cities must be wary of single-variable solutions, like "skyscraper cities." Sheer aggregations of people massed together – or separated by "open space" – is not the goal but connections and everyday encounters between people. Compact, walkable cities can provide these connections, including big cities and smaller towns.

Cities are creators of knowledge that create economic prosperity that starts at the pedestrian scale. Lack of diversity creates socio-economic stratification. The capacity to solve our problems rests with the informal web of creative and regulatory relationships cities have – their culture – and not with specialized "experts."

Jacobs said that urban planners broke cities and the built environment but they can fix it. Planners have the power to make walkable, thriving cities and towns, and to erase the disastrous course of suburban fragmentation cities set themselves on several generations ago. The problems of cities can be solved – if we understand it, and learn from the past.

Click on the heading above to read an article by Michael Mehaffy on

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Macy's Windows Inspire 4D Spatial Design

Many schools have underutilized glass-fronted display cases that are excellent places for students to try their hands at 4D spatial designs and 5D interactive designs because they have enough depth to have foreground, middle ground and background objects.

The Holiday window displays at places like Macy's (left and right) in New York City provide inspiration for creating fantasy displays with inexpensive materials, moving parts and colored lights. The displays in schools can be on any theme and any time of the year. They should be captivating and enchanting as are the Macy's windows every year.

As with any design project, students can begin first with ideation - what will be the theme of their window? This can be a collaborative team project. Next they should do some research on their theme and do many sketches of possible designs to include. Then they should make some small models to try out their ideas and work out any technical problems that might not have shown up in the sketches. Finally they are ready to create and install their works. Students can use cardboard, colored lights, and small motors to enhance their designs.

Click on the heading above to see a video of the Macy's windows in action.

Documentary Film About Designers Charles and Ray Eames

There are many important names in design history that should be known by students as much as they recognize artists like Andy Warhol or Keith Haring. Among these are husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames (right).

A documentary film called Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter premieres nationally Monday, December 19, 2011 on PBS as the 25th anniversary season finale of American Masters series. American Masters presents the first film made about America’s most important and influential designers, Charles and Ray Eames, since their deaths in 1978 and 1988, respectively.

Narrated by James Franco, Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s definitive documentary delves into the private world the Eameses created in their Renaissance-style, Venice Beach, California studio, where design history was born.

From 1941 to 1978, this husband-wife design team helped shape the second half of the 20th century and remains culturally vital and commercially popular today. Best known for their beautiful and functional, yet inexpensive furniture, most notably their signature molded plywood “Eames chair,” and their ubiquitous molded plastic chairs (left), Charles and Ray’s influence on significant events and movements in post-World War II American life – from the development of modernism to the rise of the computer age – is less widely understood.

Click on the heading above to learn more and see a preview of the film.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Growing Need for Visualization Skills

Our access to information has increased so much that it is beyond the scale at which we can humanly cope with it. Visualization is one of the ways in which we deal with the inhuman scale of massive quantities of information. More than half of our brain is dedicated to processing visual input so words and numbers alone simply can't convey information in a way that is as digestible and memorable as visualization.

Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language (2011) (left) is a book about the growing need for people with strong visualization skills in reporting news, understanding science, explaining geography and coping with the modern world (right). We need more people like John Venn, inventor of the Venn diagram; Winsor McKay, pioneering animator; Otl Aicher, creator of the simplified figures used on signs at the Olympics; Harry Beck, designer of the London Underground map; Edward Tufte, author of several books on visualization; Nigel Holmes, infographic designer for Time magazine; Richard Saul Wurman, inventor of the phrase "Information Architect", and many others.

In recent years there has been a tremendous increase in the use of visualization to present ideas and facts. Graphic language is growing so extensively that it is becoming a universal language. Our brains find it easier to process information visually than through words and numbers alone. Looking at numerical data takes a great deal of mental effort but information presented visually can be grasped in a few seconds.

What was called "Visual Art" in the schools in the past, has grown beyond mainly creative self-expression (Art) to now include Visual Communication, Design, and Visual Culture. Visualization is as critical to human growth and development as reading, writing, and math.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

5D Immersive Interaction Design with Light

5D immersive, interactive, experience design is one of the newest design domains. New York based Light Harvest Studio designs and creates large-scale 5D immersive works in multimedia.

Light Harvest says, "Architectural, site-specific, video installations have taken the beloved art of the moving image and released it from the confines of the traditional viewing environment. From concerts and parties, to fine art galleries and museums, content is now free to travel, interact and respond to the environment."

Their work has been commissioned by Universal Studios, Diesel, The United Nations, The Guggenheim Museum, Adidas, Daft Punk, NASA, Kenji Williams and many others.

“Immersive Surfaces” was a publicly presented video projection installation onto the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn during the Dumbo Arts Festival from September 23 - 25, 2011. The multi- part video projection, created by over 20 international artists and curators, covered over 30,000 sq. feet of the Manhattan Bridge Anchorage, Archway and the surrounding cityscape, through the use of cutting-edge video mapping technology.

Immersive Surfaces explores ideas of “crowd art,” and the meaning of surface as a media platform in a specific cityscape. Presented in three phases, Immersive Surfaces presents 18 works in a more traditional video art format, on a projected, Op-Art background, which animates itself in the second part of the program before leading into the climactic third section of the show:

“As Above – So Below,” is the featured piece which the image above is taken from. It consists of a video mapped projection installation, conceived and created by a group of six artists, Simon Anaya, Farkas Fulop, Richard Jochum, Johnny Moreno, John Ensor Parker & Ryan Uzilevsky. With significant sponsorship from visual production company Senovva, Light Harvest Studio, and others, the artists developed a site-specific, multi-perspective 3D installation specially designed to the scale of the Manhattan Bridge Anchorage in Brooklyn.

Click on the heading above to see the amazing immersive experience.

Let There Be Light

The Holiday season is a good time to do lessons about lighting design. Click on the heading above to see an amazing light show set to music.

Light is a key element for 4D Spatial Designers so they are aware of changing lighting conditions during the day, the seasons, changing weather and the time of year. North light is typically sought for studios because it is more even and less likely to shine directly into windows. Southern, Eastern and Western exposures will have some times during the day when the light may be too bright.

In our classrooms we should make use of four levels of lighting:

1. Outdoor Light (windows, skylights, shades, stained glass, scrims, modulated colors and patterns with gobos, cookies, filters, etc.)
2. Fill light (ceiling lights, fluorescents, etc.)
3. Focal lights (track lighting, under-counter lights, lights over sinks and work areas, display lights, etc.)
4. Sparkle lights (a string of colored lights, a lamp in the corner, projected lighting patterns, a lighted aquarium, etc.)

Look for lighting sources and modulators such as Holiday lights, unused projectors of any type, colored cellophane, translucent paper and other materials, etc. Think about bounce lighting, indirect lighting, reflected light, filtered light, colored light, color temperature, patterned light, etc.

Some lighting projects:

a. Student pencil drawings can be run through a copying machine onto transparency film and then hand colored to make projected backgrounds for holiday concerts and displays.
b. Classroom windows or display cases can be transformed by using colored film and patterns cut out of paper or cloth (gobos, cookies).
c. Overhead lights can be modulated with color, reflectors, etc.
d. A display case can be concealed by a scrim until light is shown on the background which becomes visible through the scrim.
e. Plain white walls can become colorful by putting colored bulbs in some lighting fixtures.
f. Students can learn the additive color system by mixing projected lighting primary colors (R,G,B)
g. Students can learn 3-point lighting to improve studio photography
h. Translucent material can be used to modulate the color, intensity and pattern of light whether it is coming from outside or inside the room.

Students can come up with other lighting ideas in the ideation lesson.