The art of digital collaboration

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

Drawn by the same inkling towards innovation that led him to develop his own PhD program at the University of California Santa Barbara, Dr. Kenneth Fields is engaged in cutting edge research at the top of the Arts Building.

When doing his PhD back in the 1990s, Fields, now a Canada Research Chair holder, was faced with the task of developing his own program. To do so, he combined a number of different disciplines.

“I put together art, music, linguistics, computer and cognitive sciences,” said Fields.

Following this unusual beginning to his academic career, Fields settled in Beijing, China. While there he taught a masters program in digital art and design at the University of Peking. The program, in which 200-300 students were enrolled, was an experimental format in Chinese education. At the same time he worked as a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music. Of course, to be able to teach in the capital of the world’s most populous country, he needed to speak the language.

“I studied Japanese for six years and then I went to China — that didn’t help.”

He learned Mandarin while in Beijing.

Fields’ work at the University of Calgary centers on developing new processes for working with media arts. His primary focus is on networks and the way they can aid artists’ collaboration. A network is a high-speed connection similar to the internet, but functions on a private connection, not in the public domain. There is a one gigabyte fiber connector running directly into Fields’ lab and the networks he deals with can support about the same amount of bandwidth as high definition video.

To conduct his inquiries into how artists, including musicians, can collaborate with this new technology, Fields works with researchers from around the globe. They are striving to develop ways to work together on art projects in real time, despite the distance that separates them. It will take a while to figure out just how to do this, said Fields.

“You have to develop strategies [for] how people can collaborate or sense each other,” he said. “Because in a room when people collaborate there is a lot of communication.”

The methods being developed to allow the communication necessary for successful artistic endeavours involve live video links so the artists can see each other and visual displays that allow them to view what the other is doing. For example, a screen may project a visual image that correlates to the music the person is playing at the other location, enabling the musician to synchronize their own contribution to the project. The research aims to develop these sorts of mechanisms, so that network art will be viable.

One challenge in network art is the time lag from one location to the other.

“[There is] about 150 milliseconds delay to Bournemouth, U.K.,” said Fields. “To China it is about a 250 millisecond delay.”

Fields identified two approaches to dealing with this sort of problem: artists can factor the lag into their calculations of rhythm or they can adopt a style of music that does not require such rhythmic interlocking.

Though Fields’ and his fellow researchers are primarily focused on art, he noted that network technology is not limited to that sphere.

“Whereas before you had to fly around and suffer jet leg, now you have enough telepresence augmentation that you can comfortably sit in your nice studio and still collaborate,” said Fields.

He remarked that this could even lead to global universities where one specific location was simply one part of a much larger institution.

Carrying on his academic innovation, Fields is currently in the process of developing a new faculty to teach this material, which is no simple task.

“Media arts is so interdisciplinary that I am looking for a new structure…in order to create something of that nature, you need to be a little creative with [it],” he said.

He described the work as “pre-prototyping,” noting that many things developed in universities will come to market 20 years later.

“[Fine Arts researchers] shy away from the known,” said Fields.


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