Rebecca Sutton Koeser bio photo

Rebecca Sutton Koeser

Lead Developer, The Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University

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It’s been a few weeks since I had the privilege of attending the AIGA Converge Design Educators Conference. It was a stimulating, thought-provoking experience, and I wanted to take some time to reflect on my experiences and document some of the fascinating projects I heard about that didn’t make it into my other notes from the conference.


Workshop: Making Core Memory

On the opening day of the conference, I attended a workshop on “making core memory”” with @lolweavers (where LOL stands for “Little Old Lady”). The research into the connection between craftwork and innovation in engineering is fascinating. As a software developer and someone who also does “craftwork”, I found this particularly interesting; I tend to think of those fields as so separate, but perhaps I shouldn’t. This workshop was also stimulating in another way, as an example of a different way of presenting research and helping others engage with it. I got a taste of the experience of weaving core memory (and going back to “debug” when I ran the string the wrong direction), tried out my circuit in the woven arduino quilt for the project to play a recording about the LOL weavers, and left the workshop with my own model of a woven core memory. This got me wondering what kind of experiences we could provide based on our projects at CDH… Perhaps we should come up with some way for people to create their own annotations in a physical volume as a way of engaging with the practice of annotation that’s involved in two of our current projects (The Winthrop Family on the Page and Derrida’s Margins.

Lab Tours

On the first day, I also got to join a couple of the lab tours. Fascinating work!

Creative Media and Behavioral Health Center

In the Creative Media and Behavioral Health Center, Marientina Gotsis gave us whirlwind tour of the range of games and experiences they have designed and developed. Physical games like The Brain Architecture Game, a “Skyfarer” video game with physical movements that operate as metaphors in the game (e.g. collecting items or flying the ship), but that are designed for shoulder rehab. A “luxurious provocation” called Watergait where Nike sensor shoes were used to “sonify” a person’s gait, so that it sounds like you are walking on the beach, wading and then jumping into the water. A new two-person mixed reality experience called “Butterfly Lovers” for a museum designed to prevent elder abuse; one person is in virtual reality and the other is in augmented reality, and they have to assist the person with a simple activity complicated by a tremor. For future work they’re also looking to collaborate with the dance department to develop choreography to help students with developmental disability.

Gotsis says:

Working across disciplines you have to learn each others’ languages.   … and be willing to invest, read broadly in other research

Jaunt Cinematic Virtual Reality Lab

In this lab tour, I learned about Virtual Reality storytelling. According to lab director Candace Reckinger, it’s more like music and theater than cinema. There is no frame; instead, there is a field. They have to use staging to direct the view; dancers tend get the potential right away, but it’s challenging for others. Art direction is a bigger challenge because everything is in frame. A script is a puzzle, they have to figure out how to implement it. (Generally they are working in pre-rendered, short, not interactive content.) You can’t do close ups in VR, but there is potential for moving, intimate experience. VR storytelling is the “attention game” but without all the tricks from cinema.

Other moments…

At one point I was taking notes on my laptop, typing quickly on a very clicky keyboard (I blame Apple), and recognized that I was bothering some of the people around me, so I tried to type more quietly (which is not easy to do!). I think that was the first moment I registered the fact that I was a software developer in a room full of (mostly) designers who were nearly all taking notes with pens in little paper notepads…

For some reason, there were recurring references to autonomous cars. In response to a question after Johanna Drucker’s keynote talk, she said that as someone who lives in LA, “we need autonomous cars because we already have driverless cars.” Another parent said in conversation that she hoped autonomous cars are a reality before her children learn to drive.

I was chatting with a UX designer who is also a mother, and she commented that she’s noticed there are some interfaces that children seem to be innately drawn to and that persist in life: such as pushing buttons, pulling on things.

The confusion in the audience after Erik Loyer’s keynote as people reacted to the Stepworks piece he had screened/performed for us, and struggled to understand how much of it was actually performed and how much it would be different on a repeat screening or if performed by someone else. I got to talk to Amy Papaelias about this later, and admitted that I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of Scalar and Vectors (I wonder now if it is because they are “designerly” in some way that I am not). She explained to me that most of the people there had never heard of Vectors before, and that design scholarship is still very traditional.

I felt there was a somewhat similar reaction in the audience after Casey Reas’ keynote, a quiet contemplative mood; perhaps I was not the only one struggling to make sense of what we’d all seen. Reas took us on a tour of some of his art projects from the last several years, talking about how he’d made them, and even at some moments launching scripts with Processing to show us. For most of what he showed us, I felt like I didn’t know how to “read” his art; he talked about images being easier to see from a particular angle in one piece (combined, skewed photos from the front page of New York Times), or some faces coming through more strongly than others in a series of art generated by combining pictures of different people who participated in a Kickstarter campaign. In some cases, he told us that what he was screening wasn’t intended for people to sit and watch (as we were doing), but rather to be looked at when you want to look. This led to an interesting question in the Q&A, when someone asked Reas if he’d ever been surprised by something that showed up his generative art pieces in an installation or gallery, and he explained that, basically, he makes sure he spends enough time with a piece (even up to a year) before sharing it that he finds and corrects potential problems before exhibiting the piece.

More reflections

Updated July 14th because I’m still thinking about things from the conference…

I’m still thinking about the designer as scholar/practitioner. This is something that occcured to me as I worked with Xinyi on our presentation, and something confirmed by the conference presenters and attendees who talked about their experience moving between industry and academia. It seems to me an interesting and important modality that could be particularly valuable in digital humanities, which also has a strong “practition” component. I’ll be thinking about this more as Xinyi and I revise our conference presentation for submission to Dialectic.

One talk started with a fascinating discussion on the “science of science”: using the tools of science to study how science research is done, what makes it successful. I don’t even remember which presentation this was or where the presenter went from there (must have been toward the end of the conference when I was tired). I wish I remembered more, because it was fascinating and also seems like it could be powerfully practical in some ways (where does real innovation and Nobel prize work happen? often when people collaborate across disciplines).

The panel on “Designing Deformance” reminded me of my own dissertation, where I made some small use of Bradford Paley’s TextArc. My advisor pushed me to theorize the work better, and of course I turned to McGann’s deformative intrepretation. This reminded me that my dissertation isn’t really accessible anywhere, and that I should add it to Humanities Commons (even though I have mixed feelings about the idea of people actually reading it).

Many thanks to Amy Papaelias and Jean Bauer for encouraging me to attend this wonderful conference, to CDH for sending me, and to my colleague and co-presenter @XinyiiiiLi for submitting and presenting with me.