Geek Art

MIT has a photogenic campus, what with Stata, the Dome, and the Charles. Today, however, Slice wants to feature an image from campus that is unique, not just in subject matter but also in technique. Several years ago photographer Greg Peverill-Conti captured this shot of an administrative building at MIT that was being torn down. He recently went back and reprocessed it, using a tilt-shift effect.

Peverill-Conti says he’s hoping to produce a series of tilt-shifted MIT photos. You can try out the technique yourself, using either Photoshop, an iPhone app, or a good old (expensive) tilt-shift lens.

If you want to try the Photoshop route, check out this tutorial on tilt-shift photography.

Members of the MIT community have a history of transforming visual effects. Herbert Kalmus (1903) and MIT Physics Professor Daniel Comstock codeveloped Technicolor (yes, it was named after MIT) and Bill Warner ’80 created the Avid digital editing system. And now Eliot Mack SM ’96 hopes to add his name to the list. His portable Previzion system enables accurate matching of live-action foregrounds and computer-generated backgrounds so directors can see beyond a green screen at how the final shot will look. Watch video of the technology in action.

Previzion being used on set

To add backgrounds in post-production, technicians have to know exact camera positions and lens optical parameters used during filming. Currently, visual tracking involves 3,000-pound cranes fitted with rotary measuring devices that lack complete accuracy. Mack's invention puts Intersense optical-inertial and Airtrack inertial sensors onto the camera itself, which precisely record necessary data and eliminate the need to manually figure out tracking info.

While green-screen technology is not new (meteorologists swear by it), creating live photorealistic images with it is. Current technology has problems accounting for motion tracking, image resolution, focusing and defocusing background shots, and capturing lens adjustment calibrations, which are crucial for post-production work. Mack has refined his technology to automatically generate camera tracking data and to not miss a single strand of hair against the backdrop. “Essentially, we’re recreating the world on the fly,” he says. So far, it’s been used on the television show V, the upcoming Tim Burton movie Alice in Wonderland, and the Knight Rider made-for-TV movie.

How does it work?
Consider the typical FX process. A show is recorded against a green screen, then digitized and loaded into a computer. An artist keys out the green, then another team manually identifies all the camera tracking and calibration points, which can take days for just one shot (a special-effects-laden movie would contain hundreds or thousands of such shots). Next, a team fills in the background, and yet another artist composites all the images together, all of which can take weeks or months. Mack’s invention can, with simpler backgrounds (like those usually found in TV), generate final-quality output in real time that just needs to be edited, scored, and distributed. Post-production time can still be cut by weeks for more complex scenes by fixing any lighting issues on set and using the tracking data Previzion generates (see photo caption). (more…)

Erik Demaine

Click photo to check out a video clip of MIT associate professor Erik Demaine from the show.

Between the Folds, part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, spotlights ten masters of the art and science of origami, including MIT associate professor Erik Demaine and Brian Chan ’02, SM ’04, PhD ’09. Works from those featured on the program range from minimalist designs to paper caricatures reminiscent of Daumier and Picasso to creations using advanced computations. The result is a look at how the creativity inherent in origami blurs the lines between art and science.

Check your local listings for air times.

The show’s Web site also offers a history of origami and a Match the Folds game to see if you can discern the finished product from a fold pattern.

The structure is comprised of a filigree central array of columns. Photo: The Cloud

Though still a few years off, an international team of artists, architects, and engineers, which includes MIT professor Carlo Ratti, recently released plans for a 400-ft tall spherical cloud structure that would rest atop long, thin towers and be a center-piece of the 2012 London Olympics.

Designers of the otherworldly “Cloud,” as the structure is called, hope to fund the project by soliciting millions of micro-donations. Ratti, who is the associate professor of  practice and director of MIT’s senseable city laboratory, told the BBC that the project was highly scalable: “We can build our Cloud with £5m or £50m. The flexibility of the structural system will allow us to tune the size of the Cloud to the level of funding that is reached,” he said in an interview. “It’s really about people coming together to raise the Cloud.”

People can choose to ascend to the Cloud by foot or bicycle. Photo: The Cloud

In addition to being both structural elements and habitable spaces, the spherical units that make up the Cloud could be used to display real-time information about the games, crowd sizes, and weather. The plans call for them to be constructed out of a plastic called Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), which is the same material that was used to build the Beijing Aquatic Center.

London mayor Boris Johnson put the Cloud on a shortlist of potential tourist attractions to be built in the Olympic Park. According to the BBC, he is still deciding if it will be built.

Curious? Learn more by following the Cloud on Facebook and Twitter, or watch the YouTube video below:

Who doesn’t love a good pop-up book? And members of the MIT Media Lab’s High-Low Tech group have found a way to make them even better. Electronic Popables combine traditional pop-up mechanisms with thin, flexible, paper-based electronics (the circuitry is made with paint on the paper) to create an interactive book that sparkles, sings, reacts, and moves. The book was built by summer UROP student Jie Qi, who attends Columbia University, with assistance from Assistant Professor Leah Buechley, director of the High-Low Tech Group, and Tshen Chew ’11.

The first video shows what the book can do. In the second, Buechley explains how it all works.

For those Guy Fawkes/V for Vendetta devotees out there, here’s a little origami by master folder Brian Chan ’02, SM ’04, PhD ’09. Learn about Chan’s other work.

V for Vendetta origami

Origami by Brian Chan

Lauren McCarthy wearing the Happiness Hat

Lauren McCarthy '08 wearing her Happiness Hat.

Lauren McCarthy ’08 wants people to smile. Seriously. And she has just the tool—the Happiness Hat, a wearable conditioning device that encourages smiling through pain feedback. Kind of like a torture device with a heart.

McCarthy, who received degrees in computer science and engineering and art and design at MIT, is a designer, artist, and programmer whose work explores the structures and systems of social interactions, identity, and self-representation. According to her Web site, “She is interested in the slightly uncomfortable moments when patterns are shifted, expectations are broken, and participants become aware of the system.” She works in a variety of media: video, performance, software, internet art, media installations, and, as seen here, interactive objects and environments.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
Some of the 3-D animation used to recreate battles in Broadside.

Some of the 3-D animation used to recreate battles in Broadside. Click to view trailers.

In the 17th century, New York was known as New Amsterdam and a rivalry existed between the British and Dutch that spanned oceans, continents, and empires and resulted in the fiercest naval war in the age of sail. Two hundred battleships, in miles-long formations, fought to determine who would dominate world trade for the next 200 years. Broadside, a documentary written, directed, and produced by Bruce Twickler ’67, SM ’68, captures this drama using period houses, galleries, gardens, and forts as the backdrop and through carefully researched recreations rendered in sophisticated computer graphic simulations.

The two-hour film will air on public television nationwide beginning in October. But you can be among the first to view it at this premiere event sponsored by the MIT Club of Boston.

  • Date: September 29
  • Time: Screening begins at 7:00 p.m.
  • Location: Kirsch Auditorium, Stata Center (Bldg. 32), MIT campus
  • Cost: $10 for MIT Club members and $15 for non-members; price includes refreshments and pre-screening gathering with Twickler, starting at 6:30 p.m. A Q&A will follow the movie at 9:00 p.m.

Register today with the MIT Club of Boston.

Twickler is president of his own Cambridge-based production company, Docema, which previously released the documentary Damrell’s Fire, about how Fire Chief John Damrell stopped America’s cities from burning down.

Watch trailers and learn about the history of the British-Dutch conflict, ship construction, and more on the film’s Web site.

Earth from 93,000 feet up.

Earth from 93,000 feet up.

Three MIT engineering students have found a way to stretch $150—93,000 feet (17.6 miles) into the uppermost parts of the stratosphere, to be exact.

The trio, senior Oliver Yeh and grad students Justin Lee and Eric Newton, photographed the earth from near-space using a helium-filled 350g balloon and off-the-shelf components. While high-altitude balloon photography has existed for some time and others have successfully undertaken similar ventures into the stratosphere, this (as far as the students know) is the first time it’s been done on a shoestring budget and with equipment the average non-MIT person can configure—no electronic hacking required.

The team used a prepaid cell phone with GPS capability, a cell phone charger, Energizer lithium batteries (which withstand temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit) for the charger and the camera, a Styrofoam beer cooler, disposable hand warmers to safeguard the equipment against frigid high-altitude temps, a used Canon camera they loaded with open-source software to enable continuous pictures (intervalometer), and an eight gigabyte memory card, among a few other items. See the entire list of hardware used.

Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh retrieve the downed camera, located using the attached GPS device.

Justin Lee (left) and Oliver Yeh retrieve the downed camera, located using the attached GPS device.

Called Project Icarus, the balloon’s ascent took about four hours; its descent took 40 minutes. The group tracked the device with GPS and found it some 20 miles from the launch site. And in case you’re wondering, no, they did not violate any FAA regulations, which only apply to balloons with payloads over four pounds. Learn about the entire project from start to finish on their Web site,, which seeks to promote the beauty of scientific art by combining traditional media and methods with state-of-the-art science. They promise to post DIY instructions and video soon.

While you’re there, also check out what the trio calls Skyviews—high-quality aerial photos using cameras tethered to balloons. The results are some stunning views of Boston and campus—made more impressive when you consider the variables they have to overcome: wind velocity, turbulence, lighting, and location. Photos can be purchased.

Photo: John Olson PhD '90, who is also De Cari's husband, a research scientist, and president of the New York City Classical Guitar Society. The two perform and record together in the New York area and beyond as the Olson/De Cari Duo.

Gioia De Cari SM ’88 stars in Truth Values at the Central Square Theater. Photo: John Olson PhD ’90, who is also De Cari's husband, a research scientist, and president of the New York City Classical Guitar Society. The two perform and record together in the New York area and beyond as the Olson/De Cari Duo.

These days, performance artist and writer Gioia De Cari SM ’88 calls herself a “recovering mathematician.” Back in the late ’80s, she was pursuing a PhD in math at MIT but stopped after receiving her master’s. Why? That’s the subject of her autobiographical one-woman show, “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze.” The play, which was named an outstanding solo show at the New York International Fringe Festival in August, runs Sept. 10-20 at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge.

In the production, De Cari performs more than 30 characters, impersonating students, professors, staff, and other intellectuals as she explores the role of women in science. The result is both humorous and thought provoking. She talks about her allure with nerds, being asked to serve cookies at a seminar, and retaliating with fashion experiments, all the while asking the questions: How has academia changed over the past 20 years? and What does equality and diversity in education really mean?

Select shows will offer post-performance discussions about gender equality with professors and scientists from MIT, Harvard, and other area schools, including MIT Professor of Biology Nancy Hopkins, MIT’s Mathematics Department Head Michael Sipser, and MIT Professor of Physics Janet Conrad.

De Cari worked on the play for many years, always setting it aside. “There came a point, though, when it seemed to me that the whole women in science issue was so passé that I felt embarrassed to talk about my experiences,” she says in an interview on the Central Square Theater’s blog. “I was hearing about MIT, especially, being on the forefront of addressing these problems. Then as you may remember, Lawrence Summers made this outrageous remark about women perhaps being inherently inferior to men in math and science, and at that point I figured it was my duty as an artist and a woman…to speak up.”

These days at MIT, undergraduate enrollment of women is approaching half. In fall 2008, 45 percent of students were female. That same year, 31 percent of all grad students were women. In fall 2007, 22 percent of math grad students were women. In 2006, MIT President Susan Hockfield created a new senior leadership position, associate provost for faculty equity, to focus on issues including the recruitment, retention, promotion, and career development of minority and women faculty. Professors Wesley Harris and Barbara Liskov share the appointment. To learn more about diversity initiatives at MIT, read President Hockfield’s 2009 MLK Jr. Day celebration address, “Building a Culture of Inclusion through Distributed Leadership.”

And alumnae—connect with other MIT women by joining the Association of MIT Alumnae (AMITA).

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