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onCampus--Ohio State's faculty/staff news

Vol. 38, No. 18

By: Julia Harris

Synchronous Objects takes Web by storm

Maria Palazzi knows a lot about a lot of things, such as computer animation and interactive design and the ins and outs of running Ohio State’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design.

But before she started working on the complex new Web project “Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced,” she didn’t know a whole lot about dance.

More than three years and countless conversations, illustrations, models and technological representations about dance and choreography later, her situation has changed.

“I enjoy dance more when I go see it now because I’m better able to understand what I’m seeing,” she said one bright spring afternoon, two days before the Web site was due to launch.

“Do I know everything about dance now? No. But I have some better language with which to understand it. I’m a better audience member and more interested in looking for patterns in dance, and that helps me as an animator.”

Palazzi’s experience is not unique among the large and diverse assortment of people who collaborated on this project, which is based on the complex ensemble dance piece “One Flat Thing, reproduced” created by American choreographer William Forsythe. (Several pieces of Forsythe’s installation work, as well as entrées into the Web site, are on view at the Wexner Center through July 26.)

Computer science graduate students, statistics professors, geography faculty and even design students report undergoing a seismic shift in their understanding not only of dance but of practical ways they can use visual tools and technology in their own disciplines.

It’s rather the mirror image of what happened with Norah Zuniga Shaw, director of dance and technology — a title, she concedes with a smile, that tends to raise eyebrows. Shaw, a Los Angeles transplant, has a deep and intuitive understanding of dance, and she now can use the technological tools created through this project as a way of communicating more effectively to students.

“One of the reasons to make a visual literature for dance like this is to enrich the process of dialogue and have dance at the center,” Shaw said.

The visual literature she and her multidisciplinary team worked on comprises 20 “choreographic objects,” or tools with which users can visualize and delve into aspects of Forsythe’s dance.

They build on each other in a scale of increasing complexity, beginning with a full-length video of the dance — a cast of 17 dancers moving on, around, under and over a series of rectangular tables, with only the occasional percussion of a hand banged on a table top as a musical score. The sequence of movements in the dance is controlled by a system of cues, or signals, that performers give and receive. There are more than 200 cues and no one dancer knows all of them.

Starting from the dance, Shaw and Palazzi and their team began to try and break down the immense complexity into data that could then be manipulated and represented visually.

“We started by asking the dancers a second-by-second account of their cueing system, and that became a data set we used to make marks on the video to show those degrees of agreement,” Shaw said.

With that data, the team designers and statisticians created 20 “objects” such as the Video Abstraction Tool and 3DAlignmentForms. The first allows users to play with video processing filters to modify dance footage or even upload their own videos and play with them.

The 3DAlignment tool creates beautiful arcs of color that model shifting relationships between dancers.

For all of the tools, there are explanatory videos for more in-depth information and links to related tools and to a “process catalog” that provides background details on the path the design team took to reach the final product.

Shaw acknowledges that some of the tools are more abstract and highly specialized than others, but says that’s one of the major appeals of the Web site.

“It’s important to let people enter the site in different ways,” she said. “Some people might come here just because of the generative drawing tool; some people just like to click around and look at the pretty pictures. Bill (Forsythe) said once that this site is like the Discovery Channel for dance: It reduces the complexity but gives you visuals and information so that you can ‘get it,’ and the more you understand, the more exciting it gets.”

For both Shaw and Palazzi, the process of understanding is what makes the Web project so rewarding, and they both look forward — a bit anxiously, the way a parent feels when sending a child into the world — to seeing what other researchers, students and practitioners do with it.

The multidisciplinary brain trust that gave birth to this project is now at work devising applications for it in areas such as architecture and studio dance classes.

“I feel like this has made me a better teacher, because it has taught me a new way of listening,” Palazzi said. She smiled, a bit wearily. “It has been a wonderful opportunity for a teaching moment that has lasted three years.”

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