Take a little ride with me, now, from downtown into a lattice of atoms.
First head north on 101 to Ward Memorial, then west under the Henley Gate, past the new pre-postmodern mural, and deep into the University of California at Santa Barbara. Park the hybrid car in Lot 10, and don’t forget to pay the machine as we take our first step into the unexpected.
Hark here the new Mall of Academe!
Observe the absence of those old army bungalows. They’ve tarted up the science end of campus nice now after millions poured into research coffers, especially since Chancellor Henry Yang-an engineer himself-began emphasizing the sciences with vigor. See this little confluence of science shops surrounding picnic tables, a food court, and open-air views of the airport and the slough. Over there’s the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (Nobelists on board!), the Bren School of Environmental stuff, the engineering place where blue-laser guru Shuji Nakamura hangs, and our final destination: the California Nanosystems Institute in Elings Hall, home to electron microscope and haptic technology (where you can feel the tug of a molecule’s bonds), with warnings and showers and those as-seen-on-TV blackboards really filled with chalk equations. Up on floor two is the Media Arts and Technology (MAT) graduate program, where we now follow the Xeroxed paper signs: This Way to the Allosphere.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Wes, a student in UCSB’s Media Arts and Technology program, stands below the Allosphere, perhaps the best public face of the campus’s increasing shift to multidisciplinary studies
“There’s nothing like it in the world,” says host JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, the brain-parent of this enormous round room, this gateway to immersive media experiential bliss. She’s not exactly right-there have been large immersive theaters since the early 1990s-but the Allosphere is both more immersive and less subjective, according to its proponents, as you will soon see.
After swiping a security card, we come into a darkened room where eyes grow used to the gloom first, and then to the wonder. X-Men fans may experience dej vu here-it’s a gangplank bisecting a giant sphere, la Professor X’s thoughtful spot Cerebro. Walking out, I grasp the railing nervously and, suddenly, on the screen to the right, a swarm of colorful, platelet-shaped lozenges dance to the sound of bubbly electronic music.
“You’re doing that, by the way,” laughs our host, “by touching the handrail.” That makes me jump. “It’s okay,” she says, but by then she’s into a litany of Allosphere logistics: three stories high, 2,000 square feet, engineered by sonic wizards to be acoustically neutral, making the sound in this round chamber equally good at any wavelength, anechoic. Right now, 16 four-inch speakers surround us, though eventually there will be 512. The sphere has two curved screens, suspended like floating mists in the semi-gloom. Only one side is currently operational, but soon spectators will be completely bombarded by sounds and sights of physical phenomena projected front and rear via supercomputer. All told, it’s $5 million of erected flash technological accomplishment, with another $5 million needed to get it all the way up.
“Now, I’m going to fly you in there,” she says, handing me a $600 pair of 3-d glasses while grabbing a joystick. And in we sweep.
To see the ‘Sphere’s 3-d imagery, users must don a pair of glasses (center) that cost upward of $400 per pair.
It’s appropriate that the first thing Kuchera-Morin shows me is the inside of a professor’s brain: namely the thinking organ of Marcos Novak, who describes himself as a “pioneer in virtual architecture,” but who also coined many terms that MAT students gleefully plug into conversations-“transvergence” for instance, or “transarchitecture.” The brain of Novak, who also named the Allosphere, was earlier captured by an MRI machine that measured changes in his blood density while he watched videos of contemporary abstract art and examined them for balance, symmetry, and other psycho-aesthetic combinations not connected to realistic imagery such as people or puppy dogs. That makes Novak and his friends “the first artists to quantify beauty,” believes Kuchera-Morin.
Despite the danger of exciting the bubbly lozenges, I hang on while diving through the depths of Novak’s noggin. Crags, shelves, and deep abysses open, coursing through inner space, colors rushing past either side of us like the psychedelic astronauts from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tints help delineate the occipital from the parietal or temporal lobes. All of this imagery is from data recorded, laid out in grids, and then colored in by computer operators-accurate on the one hand, visually resplendent on the other. (I’m for sure leaning more to Stanley Kubrick than Fantastic Voyage.)
By Paul Wellman
The immersive theater.
Kuchera-Morin coaxes me back to the railing. “Put your hand back on there,” she demands, explaining that the lozenges represent blood, and have been sonified-given tonal values that make warbling electronic melodies. “Now, it’s going to sing its song,” she explains. Swarming forth, Novak’s representational blood makes music.
As psychedelic as it seems, the Allosphere isn’t just a simulated acid trip in a big weird machine. It’s metaphorical, too, nicely representative of the new world at UCSB, which began as a little liberal arts college in the late 1950s but is now a place where disciplines collide, where scientists and artists meet, where chemists win Nobel prizes for physics and vice versa. In fact, the Allosphere’s costly hyperbole just might be the best face UCSB has ever had.
And it isn’t just a theater, either. To Kuchera-Morin and her students, it’s a big experimental field, ready to play on. “We’re not designing virtual reality,” Kuchera-Morin explains, as we get started. “In here, we’re designing reality.”
The Musician from Monongahela
She may seem a little science-nerdy, but Kuchera-Morin is mostly about the music, and thus her road to the Allosphere seems unlikely. Born in 1953 in Monongahela, a small Pennsylvanian mining town near Pittsburgh, her family moved to Florida “to live the modern life. I can remember when my mother discovered beans in the can.” It was a blue-collar upbringing, which did not include the arts beyond stints in the choir.
Yet Kuchera-Morin, against impossible odds, got into the Eastman School of Music, where she studied composing and was caught between the au courant John Cage torturing of instruments and a love of great performances. That led her to an almost chance epiphany about computer music, where instrument and performance became one. “We were like a bunch of apes gathered around the monolith,” she laughed, speaking of her peer group encounter with the digital possibilities. Somehow this unlikely string of events landed her a teaching post at UCSB-not in the music department, but in engineering. “They had all these people from Stanford, from MIT, and they hired me! A composer from Eastman. All these glorious blunders!”
Short with shoulder-length graying hair, more like a friendly Disney witch than a prof, Kuchera-Morin’s monologues are as immersive as an Allosphere presentation, mixing scientific discourse with something richly felt-let’s call it passion. Her words tumble out, lucid and learned, though often interspersed with comic spurts of exasperation.
Take, for instance, her memory of discovering computer languages: “That was an eye-opener to me, when I had that computer in my hand and I realized, ‘God! Anybody can put their information into this machine and it comes out zeroes and ones-what does that mean?’ : [In music school], they never get into acoustics or the psycho-acoustics of the ramifications of vibrations of the first overtone partials of the instrument. But then with the computer, you realize, ‘Oh my God! It’s all math.’ They never explained to me-that it’s all math. So you start to understand that the tradition of music is so interesting because here you have hundreds of years of writing this notation that’s an abstraction of all of these mathematical principles and constructs that you don’t even get to. : And yet the language is so incredible, to be able to write music, to write notation when you try to decode that into time? All those notes? It’s incredible the complexity. :These are things I was learning in the ‘80s with a new technology that was coming in. In the early days, we were pulling apart everything.”
She began haunting the UCSB engineering department exploring these conversions. “At first, they thought I was crazy,” she laughed, describing those she approached trying to develop the first digital-audio computer systems, which then did not exist. “I was trying to convert numbers into sound, and they said to me, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Then I told them I wanted to use computers for visual art, and they said, ‘Are you crazy? Computers are just for crunching numbers.’”
During an international computer music conference in 1987, Kuchera-Morin created believers when she nervously explained her projects to a room of scientists and unexpectedly brought down the house. From there, she traversed a number of high-profile posts, including dean of information technology and computer science at UCSB’s College of Letters and Science and a leadership role in bridging the University of California campuses under Governor Gray Davis, who generously gave the system $300 million to encourage the crossing of campus and departmental boundaries.
When Kuchera-Morin approached UCLA to cosponsor a project with UCSB that bridged arts and technology, the schools won a $100 million grant, which underwrote the California Nanosystems Institute, MAT, and the Allosphere. Today, Kuchera-Morin is the director of the Allosphere, director of the Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology, and a professor at MAT-not bad for a composer from Monongahela.
By Paul Wellman
As with the brain, Kuchera-Morin said they began by being “agnostic to the data.” In other words, this is not an artist’s rendering, not a cartoon version of Mr. Molecule’s Adventures. Instead, it’s an interpretation of what these quantum flotsam would look like interacting given certain properties-you know, like Schrdinger’s theories about quantum superpositions and the Heisenberg principle, stuff like that. MAT gets the equations and the computer tells the Allosphere projectors how these things would behave based on real physical theories and laws. Wandering in for the first time, Van de Walle’s researchers stepped back in awe. “Look!” said the engineers to each other, while watching the realistically reacting particles. “I told you that’s what would happen.”
Tootling the joystick-an adapted Nintendo Wii controller-Kuchera-Morin takes me diving into the atomic storm, the colors, again, astounding, sounds filling the room. She’s assigned each color a tone that signals its identity and offers aural pleasures. Though not happy that science has cut into her music-making time, Kuchera-Morin still finds inspiration for her musical palette-currently she’s composing a “Quantum Entanglement Symphony.” You can see why as we rush through colors and shapes, and they rush past us. Then, as Kuchera-Morin speaks, she starts muttering something about the control lever and wonders what she can do to make our dive through the lattice more dramatic. She grunts a little and suddenly we’ve rushed past the data, beyond the images, into empty space. “Whoops,” she said. “Wonder how I get us back.”
The pioneers include our brain buddy Novak, a highly provocative virtual architecture artist with a campus reputation for swagger; Jean-Pierre Hebert, an artist who draws using code and is just ending a one-person exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Forum; and George Legrady, who is just beginning one at the newer Edward Cella Art + Architecture and uses NASA data in his installations. Students can attach themselves across disciplines, and that’s the idea. “Our students are famous,” said Kuchera-Morin, citing numerous recent exhibitions and performances from China to Los Angeles. “They’re learning the different cultures well. They publish scientific papers together, and some of the engineering students are giving their first shows. What we are doing is creating a new kind of hybrid student.”
So what’s that mean? “It’s going to take us another 20 years to figure out exactly where this will go,” explained the composer, but she’s in no rush. “We’re not sure, okay? We’re happy to be discovering ourselves. We don’t exactly want to be confined. Look what happened to computer science, for instance. Fifty years ago, people were asking, ‘What is this thing, a cross between engineering and sociology?’” Today, computer science is a wildly popular major rigidly taught in codified cirriculum. But make no mistake: Kuchera-Morin enjoys the mystery and likes MAT at its current crossroads.