UCSD students in La Jolla get futuristic for senior thesis projects


By Will Bowen

It’s surprising that you don’t see many entrepreneurs shopping around for some new technology to fund at UC San Diego’s Interdisciplinary Computing in the Arts & Music (ICAM) presentations. The productions occur on the last day of spring quarter each year and are really the place to see the latest developments, trends and realizations in computing and the arts.

For the last five months, ICAM students have been working on their Senior Thesis Project, which is their stepping stone to graduate school or a job in the new media marketplace.

“The projects of our students range from pure research, through computer games, all the way to art installations and performances,” said Visual Arts Professor Brett Stalbaum, who co-directs the program with Music Professor Peter Otto.

“This is where you really see innovation,” Otto added. “It isn’t really happening in the game companies out there, as you might expect, but in student projects like these at ICAM.”

“I have put every spare minute into my project,” said

Wesley Hawkins

, who single-handedly built and programmed his own combat simulator video game. “This is my fifth year at UCSD. I spent three years studying chemical engineering before I switched to ICAM. I made the switch because I finally realized that I wanted to make some ‘fun’ stuff; I consider myself a fun-gineer!”

Hawkins constructed an army-green wooden cockpit, the size of a VW bug, and adorned the interior with a video screen, computer and controls, some of which came out of a Honda Prelude that he and his girlfriend tore apart at the junkyard.

“This is the Soviet version of the game. It’s big and heavy!” joked Hawkins.

You climb inside the cockpit and play a video game that takes place on a mining planet, where you are inside a converted transformer-like salvage robot that has been armed to fight bandits who are raiding the planet.

Hawkins built all the hardware, wrote the software computer program and drew all the graphic art by himself. This is quite a feat because a game like this usually requires a team effort with many people involved in the various aspects.

Fellow ICAM student

Nick Wolford

used two arduino devices, clear PVC pipe, lacrosse balla and LCD lights to create a new style of hand-held toy, which he calls a “Techno Icosahedron.” Modeled after a geodesic dome, the toy will play music and flash different light sequences as you spin it around. You can also place it on a shelf as a light fixture/art piece.

Kevin Lam

placed light sensors around a bowl of water to create a fascinating new type of musical instrument he calls “Hydrina.” You play the Hydrina by placing your fingers in the water and twiddling them. The resulting ripples on the water are picked up by the sensors and cause different sounds to be played through a speaker.

Grady Kestler

used complex math formulas to develop a new process for creating 3-D surround- sound headphones. Currently, to get a good set, you must have your head, nose and ears personally measured because your features affect the soundfield around you. Kestler’s math may make it easier to mass produce quality surround-sound headphones, which may someday come with your iPhone.

Mike Ricca

, who is married with two children, said he returned to school after an unfulfilling career in banking. He is now on his way to NYU to pursue graduate studies.

Ricca created a computer program that directs lighting while sending instructions to human performers, which will be very useful in live performance art pieces.

Cory Gehrich

composed a 30-minute musical piece that examines the current political situation in this country. Gehrich integrated music he wrote with recorded speeches off the Internet. He also played all the instruments involved. The Music Department gave Gehrich an award for “Best Composition Student” this year.

Sophie Dowd

constructed a four-by-four foot white box and projected different visual images on each of the five sides of the box using three external film projectors. She did the filming and also wrote the accompanying musical score. Otto called the piece “sublime” and encouraged Dowd to place it in an art gallery as an installation piece.

David Lopez de Arenosa

closed out the evening’s presentations by setting up as a band for computer, guitars and voice. He sang and played while the computer mixed and transformed his presentation to create a very beautiful sonic environment.

“Five or 10 years ago a student could do a part of a project, such as a computer game,” Professor Otto observed. “But now students have the skill and mindset to build the container, write the program, and create the music and artwork involved. They are now multi-talented and multi-tasking. They can do the whole thing themselves!”

Professor Stalbaum noted that the department was “proud our major is adept at filling the top graduate programs in art and technology, and in industry, where our grads work at companies ranging from Sony to Yahoo.”

Otto also noted that for the future, the plan is to help students bring their ideas to fruition in the marketplace. He said Larry Smarr, who heads up California Institute of Technology (Calit2) which supports ICAM student work has stated the next step is to build relations with entrepreneurs and game companies to shrink the gap between conception and manifestation of a product in the marketplace from six years to six months.

“Right here, in this classroom, we are inventing the future of media!” Otto proclaimed.