Let's Review: Computers, neuroscience, the arts - UC San Diego ICAM presentations

One of the best places to get a glimpse of the future is the senior presentations of the Interdisciplinary Computing in the Arts & Music (ICAM) majors, held every June at the end of the school year at UC San Diego.

The presentations are the result of the longest sequence of a class at the University — 20 weeks of focused work under the tutelage of Peter Otto and Tom Erbe in music, and Brett Stalbaum and Amy Alexander in the visual arts. The art and technology students are instructed to “become solutions; create new ideas” and “invent the field as you go along.”

This year the students came up with things like a lucid-dream video game, security device, mobile app, combined book/comic strip/and video, and a DJ performance incorporating sound and image.

Neuroscientist Dr. Eve Edelstein, who has advanced degrees in both neurobiology and architecture, gave the keynote address. She is studying how spaces and places affect the brain, and began by describing how one of her teachers at UC Berkeley used to carry Albert Einstein’s brain around campus in a hatbox. She said her teacher eventually determined that what made Einstein’s brain so special was not its size, but the fact that it had many more connections between neurons than found in the average person’s brain.

Edelstein went to describe one of her current research projects: subjects wearing a bathing cap covered with wires recording their brain impulses are subjected to different virtual ceiling heights in the Calit2 3D StarCave to see what height produces the most happy and well- functioning brain state. She said she hopes to use her research to determine things like what are the best classroom designs for optimal learning, or what is the best type of hospital room for patient healing. Ultimately, she said we might be able to redesign our cities with optimal brain function in mind, thus producing a “smart city.”

Tanya Zhang made the first student presentation. She designed a cell phone application with a GPS map, called Scavenger, which shows locations where you can use a $5 coupon for Starbucks coffee or Jamba Juice.

Next, Lawrence Chit explained his video game, which takes a virtual 3D ramble through the streets of San Diego while the computer records your EEG responses to the different GPS waypoints you pass through. Chit’s work is an example of trying to determine what areas of San Diego induce the best brain states.

Elliot Sperling showed how computers could be used to enhance old music by way of a new recording of the old Allman Brothers Band instrumental, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”

Chris Berry explained his tongue-in-cheek security program that uses a plastic, life- sized machine gun that shoots Nerf bullets. The machine gun has a motion detector and shoots those who trespass parameters in an art gallery.

Holly Sinclair prefaced her presentation with a moving story about how she became seriously depressed just taking dry computer science classes. After she switched majors to ICAM and started creative applications with her programming work, she overcame her depression. Sinclair composed a sci-fi story set in 2040 where the military has taken over and restricted all freedoms. They are able to keep the populace content by offering them the opportunity to get a new face and body of their choosing.

Sinclair presented her tale, which follows two people involved in the process, by way of a written story, a comic book with drawings overlaid on real life photographs, and a video. You choose which way you want to experience the story.

David Wang explained “Lucid,” the video game he developed, which helps the player acquire the skills necessary to have more lucid dreams — the kind where you’re aware that you are dreaming. The game makes incorporates ideas from Tibetan Dream Yoga where Buddhist monks are taught to wake up from their dreams to face and master their symbolic fears and anxieties.

Danny Naguera performed a new type of DJ show, mixing music with overhead visual images on a large screen. The concluding performance consisted of three songs by hip-hop trio Jake Schneider, Josh Bonas and Stepchild to the Phoenix. The vocals featured a high-pitched Sam Smith-type voice juxtaposed with rap lyrics.

In the future, Sinclair said, everyone will know a computer language and be able to program their computers to do things like the ICAM students do.

Professor Otto said computers will also be more flexible and easy to talk to, and people will be able to ask them to write new programs to accomplish tasks, just like we now ask Siri to dial a telephone number on our iPhones!

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