Dance Tech, Road To Embodied Computing

As reported elsewhere I attended and participated in a “Dance Technology Mini Faire” at the University of Illinois, organized by Professor John Toenjes.

The event featured a number of projects by students and faculty, with the general theme of dance augmented by sensors and computers, and, of course, mobile devices that have both. This is a sign of really interesting and important collaborations among performing artists, technologists, and others (such as social scientists).

These performing artists are developing technical savvy that enables them to experiment and explore new aesthetic possibilities. Dancers are expert in motion and sensing their own bodies, digital technology means that they can interact with a computer not just via a pointer or a screen but with the motions of their whole body. Networks mean that dancers than interact with each other simultaneously in both physical and virtual space.

What can be done with these capabilities? We’re just starting to learn.

As an engineer, I am eager to collaborate with performing artists because I want to build the next generation of human interfaces, whole-body, “walk in” interfaces. My strategic principle is, “if you want to learn about embodied computing, work with dancers, not computer programmers”. I think that the way to create great gesture- and motion-based interfaces is to explore choreography with experts.

In addition, as a social scientist, it is fascinating to look at how these technologies may be used to bring people together in shared, face-to-face experiences. Performing arts are, at base, applied psychology; creating a special relationship between performers and audience. But we are all connected to the same digital networks now, and this is a new “stage” for performances to connect to “the audience”.

At the November event, Professor David Marchant of Washington Univeristy in St. Louis presented a new piece, “iWe”, which explored this anthropological territory. As part of his own continuing examination of performer-audience interactions, this piece invited the “audience” onto the dance floor along side rehearsed dancers. The audience was not rehearsed, but was equipped with a mobile phone app that delivered the choreography step-by-step.

This combination of choreographed dancers and digitally enabled cues created a hybrid experience, where the dancers and “audience” danced together through an increasingly demanding set of “steps”. Whatever else this might be, it is different from conventionally “watching” a dance, but also not unprogrammed folk dancing either.

“Ding!” The “audience” checks their phone for the next cue. Scene from “iWe” by David Marchant (November 13, 2015). Image: Jeff Carpenter/eDream

This approach may or may not turn out to be a fruitful direction for choreographers in the long run. But for me the point is that as an engineer or social scientist, Marchant has shown us something that can be done with this technology, something that we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. Cool!

The software used in this piece is being developed as part of Laboratory for Audience Interactive Technology (LAIT), which is also working with scholars from several disciplines to explore different ways this technology can be used.

Important stuff.

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