Serious games

Professor Jeffrey Shaw has been at the forefront of interactive media art since the late 60’s. First as a solo artist and then as a researcher at various universities, he has consistently pushed the boundaries of what’s possible with digital media. Chris Fitzsimmons reports on his work past, present and future.

Australian born, Professor Jeffrey Shaw has travelled the globe pursuing his passion for art and digital media. In the late 70’s and early 80’s he worked with the first generation of computer graphic systems, interested in the ways in which interactivity can offer a new dimension in the way we experience art.

In parallel to that he also became interested in strategies for immersive visualisation becoming engaged in the very early stages of 3D display and 3D graphics. Until 1991, he worked as an autonomous artist, but then joined an institution in Germany called the ZKM, the centre for art and media. This lead him to set up his first research laboratory – the Institute for Visual Media.

Here his work focused on developments in large scale, immersive, interactive visualisation environments – creating panoramic and 360-degree systems. A decade later, he moved to Sydney and the University of New South Wales, where he established the iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research.

Then, most recently, he and his parter Dr Sarah Kenderdine moved to Hong Kong. Here Shaw became Dean of the School of Creative Media, and established the ALIVE (Applied Laboratory for Interactive Visualisation and Embodiment).

“ALIVE builds on all the research outcomes that Sarah and I developed at the ZKM, the iCinema centre and Museum Victoria. It brings together a lot of those technical resources and content, and offers itself as a platform for future R&D.”

Those resources include multiple visualisation installations such as the AVIE (see above image). This is a 360-degree stereoscopic interactive visualisation environment. Four metres high and ten metres in diameter, it includes a 12-channel stereoscopic projection system coupled with a 14.2 surround sound audio system.

So what does the Professor do with all these wonderful toys? Not perhaps what you might think. "My primary focus has always been art installations. These works are created in the trajectory of contemporary art practice and are pushing the boundaries of what media art can be in the future. "I'm also very interested in the cinema and in the ways in which we can imagine the cinema of the future taking new forms that are different from the one that we have today. This involves certain challenges, especially the relationship of interactivity to narrative. Cinema is fundamentally a narrative medium, and when you create interactive cinema you have to redefine the nature of narrative in relation to these new modalities of spectator/audience participation.

"So I'm researching new paradigms for interactive cinema. Most familiar is the one that comes out of computer games, where you have a branching plot and people can choose which direction they want to go. But another paradigm I'm fascinated by is the navigable panoramic fully immersive narrative. This is a visualization environment where multiple narratives surround you in 360 degrees, and where by shifting your point of view you can choose and combine various narrative streams.

"In this way I'm trying to reconstruct a kind of hyperreality that more resembles our relationship to the real world, where you yourself become the camera person and director who can choose where you want to focus your attention, and which story line you want to follow."

“The interesting thing about these kinds of experiences is that the viewer can come back over and over again and experience the work in quite different ways. Another strong interest is the visualization and interpretation of cultural heritage. Dr Kenderdine has been working as a leading academic and curator in the museum world for many years and she is looking at new ways in which we can use these technologies to give the public heightened cultural heritage experiences that are interactive, immersive, embodied and profoundly educational.

“Currently we also have a partnership with Professor Maurizio Forte at UC Merced in California. He is laser scanning and photographing the Han Tombs at Xian in China, and we are then taking those data sets and visualizing them in our interactive 360-degree 3D immersive projection environments. In this way the public can be provided with an embodied full-scale virtual reality experience of these caves, augmented by multimedia to provide an impactful interpretative experience. The computer gaming experience is also one that fascinates professor Shaw.

“In gaming again we are examining new paradigms. The format in which it currently operates is screen-based, where a person is interacting with a virtual world. What interests me is a new type of gaming environment, which constitutes a social space where lots of kids can come together. In other words you are reconstituting those kinds of social experiences that kids have when they go bowling or skating – more traditional kinds of large scale social situations.

“I’m not just talking in terms of entertainment games, but also in terms of serious or educational games. We’re even thinking that these types of experiences could constitute a new kind of classroom.

“The classroom of the future is where kids could come together and be embedded in a massive data space and explore this information together. This could include not just data from a game, but also real time information from the internet.”

Alongside all of this, Professor Shaw has also been involvement in more tangible applications of immersion, such as visualisation of data and spaces for the mining industry. Here he has met with great success simulating emergency procedures for evacuation and incident response.

However he is absolutely clear that his motivation remains the same as it was in the 70’s.

“I sometimes look around at what others are doing and I find it disappointing. I find it disappointing because it’s so limited to what the status quo is in terms of habits of consumption. It’s tailored to that, not the potential for the future.

“We’ve done a lot of extraordinary stuff, but it’s been possible because all of what we do is fundamentally art driven. We are artists, and we are coming at this from the perspective of artists looking for that kind of qualitative experience. We’re not looking at the short-term commercial viability of what we do, that comes later. If the art is good, then it naturally becomes commercially viable. We don’t start by looking at the market place and designing for it. We create the precedents ourselves, and that gives us a lot of freedom in what we do. It allows us to be at the cutting edge of what these technologies can do.”

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