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New Media Experts to Speak at ISU


Anne Deane, Music, (515) 294-0396
Carolina Cruz-Neira, Engineering, (515) 294-5685
Robert Mills, IPRT, (515) 294-1113
Steve Sullivan, News Service, (515) 294-3720


AMES, Iowa -- A memorial to the victims and survivors of Sept. 11 being developed at Iowa State University will meld art and science.

The memorial, called Ashes to Ashes/Dance Driving, will be a virtual reality, or immersive sonic environment, featuring music, virtual dancers and the voices of New York City residents.

Ashes to Ashes will be about hope, said Anne Deane, assistant professor of music who is leading the project. Our plan is to give New Yorkers a permanent interactive exhibit where future visitors also will be able to record their recollections, to create an archive of thousands of New Yorkers' experiences of that time for all future generations.

Ashes to Ashes is being developed by Deane; Carolina Cruz-Neira, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering; and Valerie Williams, director of CoMotion Dance Theater in Ames. The project will use technology at Iowa States Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC). Cruz-Neira is associate director of VRAC.

VRAC is home to C6, the first virtual reality theater in the United States designed to totally immerse the user in images and sound. Virtual reality uses computer images and sound to create environments that can be experienced as "real" to the user. C6 has images projected on all six of its sides (four walls, ceiling and floor). Human-computer interaction is a fundamental research area for VRAC.

"There is plenty of room for improvement in how people interact with virtual reality systems and computers in general, both in the arts and the sciences, said Cruz-Neira. "Ashes to Ashes/Dance Driving gives us a unique way of looking at the problem. It requires that we develop new ways to model humans in a VR environment. This technology will be helpful in many areas that we are working on, from virtual collaboration to military simulations.

The team is working to make Ashes to Ashes a permanent installation in New York City. It has received funding from Iowa State and the Iowa Arts Council.

Like so many people, we wanted to do something. We wanted to comment as artists on what had happened, said Deane. This is about what the people of New York City experienced. Its their experiences, not ours. We want it to be their piece.

The exhibit uses a new medium blending the arts and virtual reality. Visitors to Ashes to Ashes will be encouraged to gesture or even dance. Their movements will trigger synthetic dancers, who will move to the sounds of music and voices. The voices belong to New York City residents.

Williams will work with Iowa State student dancers to create dances for the project. The movements of the dancers will be videotaped, then turned into 2-D graphic silhouettes, which will be the only images in the virtual environment.

Deane is writing the music for the project. In February, she spent several days in New York City, doing interviews for the spoken-word portion of the project. She interviewed people who were in the World Trade Center during the attack, as well as bystanders and people who lived nearby. She talked to firefighters and medical personnel who were on the scene, people who delivered food to volunteers, and young women who went from temps in office buildings to ground zero volunteers.

Deanes interview subjects were found through the projects Web site, and with the help of counselors who helped people following the attacks.

Deane is taking pieces from the interviews and creating categories that range from the mundane activities of someones day to what each person felt, heard, smelled and saw after the attacks. One woman speaks about being with her running group early that morning and how the sky was clear and beautiful. She speaks of the World Trade Center glowing in the sunlight. Later, she talks about hearing a big rumbling noise.

Under Cruz-Neiras direction, ISU students David Kabala and David Snow are integrating dance video with computer graphics and programming the interactive portions of the performance. Kabala is a junior studying microbiology and computer science. Snow is a senior in computer engineering.

Our students had to learn how to create a virtual reality application and then discover how to integrate new technologies into it, said Cruz-Neira. And of course, they have worked closely with Anne and Valerie to fulfill their artistic desires and sensibilities.

This is Deane and Cruz-Neiras first collaboration, though both have previously created immersive environments. An installation Deane created in California was a model for Ashes to Ashes. The installation used water, music and voices of nine brothers and sisters, who shared fond and heartbreaking memories of their father, who suffered from Alzheimers disease. The installation also featured a recording of an elderly Alzheimers sufferer singing I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad. The installation toured California and elicited strong emotional responses, said Deane.

We can give people a very direct experience, an experience that is emotionally moving and cathartic, said Deane. These installations give people an opportunity to express themselves and help them heal.

Several Iowa State students are involved in the project, helping with technical aspects and doing research. Chad Jacobsen, a senior in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, is the projects videographer and traveled to New York with Deane.

The ISU group is working with Steve Berman and Larry Tuch, two Los Angeles-based experts on virtual reality and new media. Berman and Tuch will speak at Iowa State on April 7.


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