Creating a Mixed Reality Exhibition

A new media playbook for art and design schools

There’s a fine line between an “aha” moment and an “oh sh*t” moment

The countdown to the exhibition opening had started. The last-minute venue change faded into the realm of “so 48 hours ago.” Jeff Brice, the chair of design at Cornish College of the Arts, was currently in triage mode over new tables.

“So, what about the new tables? NEW TABLES?”

Who knew the existing tables in the gallery did not provide the visual tracking required?!

“What exactly is ‘visual tracking’ and where do I find enough tables that have it? AND get them by tomorrow?”

Amidst a torrent of final details, Brice found the right tables in Everett, just an hour north of Seattle. As months of planning and effort came down to the wire, there weren’t a lot of hours left.

Cornish’s first multidisciplinary mixed reality exhibition, “Through the HoloLens,” was about to become real reality.

Cornish College of the Arts was no stranger to group exhibitions or to interdisciplinary approaches, and certainly not to innovation. Its rich history includes avant-garde luminaries like dancer Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and composer John Cage.

However, Through the HoloLens was unique. It was the result of a months- long partnership with Microsoft to explore new experiences at the frontier of tech, mixed reality, and artistic expression. As it happened, that frontier was a pretty busy place—with a new medium (3-D holographic computing), a range of nontechnical disciplines (dance, theater, music, performance production, art, design, illustration), expensive hardware (24 HoloLens devices), and specific security and venue requirements (like prerelease devices, and the aforementioned tables).

This busy frontier was precisely the right place for Ben Porter of the Microsoft HoloLens team. “Cornish has a great reputation in the arts community for being cutting edge and pushing the envelope. We really wanted to see what they would do with this new medium.”

Cornish College of the Arts’ urban campus.

Welcome to exhibitions on the edge

Situated in the booming South Lake Union district of Seattle, Cornish is part of an innovation zone where Amazon, Facebook, HBO, Microsoft, and small startups all blend into one urban campus. Here, interdisciplinary scrambles around the next big thing are common—and that’s how, through rapid protoyping, failing fast, learning by doing, and moonshots—things get done. Mostly.

In this neighborhood, “seat of the pants” is oftentimes more valued than “by the book.”

That dynamic was occurring in parallel at Cornish, where there was no “by the book” for a mixed reality course of study involving non-coding art and design students. Jeff Brice and his colleague Robin Avni, Assistant Professor of Design at Cornish, quickly realized that, while lack of “by the book” would challenge everyone to work outside their comfort zones, it would also present “seat of the pants” opportunities for unique creation. The instructors were buoyed by their shared belief that artists have always been the first wave in these new movements — finding meaning and narrative and humanizing all new things.

For the students, ambiguity, novelty, and absence of precedents weren’t really a concern. Lack of documentation mostly meant there wasn’t a senior Photoshop or After Effects guru that everyone could turn to. Mixed reality was very new to everyone.

Cornish students on the Microsoft sound stage, spring 2016.

The students brought two areas of focus to the project. One group was into dance, theatrical movement, and apparel design. The other group was more aligned with traditional 2-D art and design. Consistent across the two groups was Brice and Avni’s emphasis that technology should always be in service of the idea.

How would these students from a range of (non-coding) creative disciplines use this new holographic medium?
What would they see?
What would they do?
What would they create?

Announcing a new-media playbook

Now, almost a school year later, after the deadlines have passed (along with the euphoria of a successful opening), the Cornish instructors have taken time to reflect on the entire body of work. They figured out a lot—not only about exploring the new medium of mixed reality, but also about the coordinated efforts required from various participants to craft a course of study with a culminating exhibition.

Not your typical exhibition opening.

In a white paper being published today, Through the HoloLens: Experiencing the Creative, Communicative, and Collaborative Processes, Brice and Avni share their experience and key learning (along with some aha moments) in the hopes that other educators and schools can take their new media course of study to the next level — faster and with a more informed perspective.

This paper documents everything, including partnerships, processes, and roles and responsibilities. It differentiates mixed reality (MR) from augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). It blends theory and history with insights and tech tips. It includes a Future Directions segment outlining opportunities that lie ahead for creators working with mixed reality. (The next round of exploration and experimentation with Microsoft HoloLens will debut in Seattle next month.)

In addition to educators, this paper is intended for corporate partners who have an interest in exploring tech, innovation, and creativity within an art and design environment.

Finally, this paper is a showcase for the wonderful mixed reality work of the student artists and designers, with accompanying personal accounts of the challenges and triumphs they encountered.

Jeff Brice and Robin Avni at Cornish, December 2016.

Resources

Download the white paper

See the student work

Check out the video and program overview

About Cornish

About Microsoft HoloLens


Acknowledgements

Thanks to Cornish faculty, staff, and students for their bravery, vision, and creativity. Special thanks to Jeff Brice and Robin Avni for previewing their white-paper and documenting their experiences. And finally, thank you, Ben Porter and the HoloLens team, for being supportive partners.


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