The Partnership Between Art and Tech

A machine drawing a painting.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

It’s no surprise that in the digital age, art and technology are increasingly combining in new ways. Everything from art created via audience participation to the literal use of new tech—computers, cell phones, digital data, and more—is changing the definition of art and how it’s presented.

PNCA grad Angélica Maria Millán Lazon‘s Engendradxs, for example, uses a combination of traditional and more modern technology. By combining fabrics, photographs, and smartphone videos, the presentation gives voice to several generations of women in Millán Lazon’s family. The installation was shown at the Williamson | Knight Gallery in April and at PNCA’s exhibit of MFA projects in June.

But the intersection of art and technology started long before Millán Lazon’s smartphones—and in many cases, it’s been even more elaborate. At London’s “Digital Revolution” show back in 2014, a series of artists displayed projects incorporating everything from audience interaction, lasers, pollution data, and robotics.

Umbrellium’s “Assemblance,” for example, used computer-controlled lasers to create ever-changing light displays based on audience movement and interactions. Visitors literally left trails of light in their wake, thanks to custom-created camera tracking, audio, smoke machines, projectors, computers, and more. For added interest: the audience could create light shows on their own, but if they interacted together as a group, the result was stronger, more resilient, and more sophisticated.

Another part of “Digital Revolution,” brought to you by Russian mixed media artist Dmitry Morozov, relied on a contraption of Morozov’s design that “sniffed out” pollutants like carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and methane from the streets of Moscow. By inputting the data into a computer program called Arduino, the resulting data was transformed into shapes and colors—a surprisingly colorful movie of pollution.

Experimentation with technology and art continues today as well. During this year’s New York Art Week, The Verge reported on several particularly interesting installations from Chris Dorland and Jacolby Satterwhite, respectively.

Dorland’s work focused on the creation of video of his own painting, as well as images from a spinal reconstruction website. “The underlying idea,” Dorland told The Verge, “is how technology sees the world and how we see things and how the lens records the world we live in. What happens when you put a Cadillac ad in front of a machine that doesn’t care about the content? It’s reading the information and recording it.”

Satterwhite’s offering had more of a direct correlation with his own family history—not unlike Millán Lazon’s Engendradxs. Going through thousands of his mother’s drawings from the 90s, Satterwhite traced anywhere from ten to fifteen of them and composited them together using 3D animation. “Basically I collect disparate archives and synthesize them together to make incongruent sources and to build a harmonious narrative,” Satterwhite explained.

As our understanding of technology increases—and as artists continue to get more inventive—we’re likely to see even more unusual and innovate combinations of art and technology.

Spaceport America Cup

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.
Photo credit: Miami2you / Shutterstock

The 2017 Spaceport America Cup is the first of its name, picking up the grail after the end of ESRA’s International Rocket Engineering Competition. But its sponsor and namesake, the New Mexico launch site for private space companies, hope to see it grow a reputation of its own for nurturing a new generation of aeronautical innovators.

The competitors in this competition are all students from colleges across the country, 110 teams in all. The winners overall were a team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Their rocket, which used a liquid rocket propulsion system, traveled over 9km above the Earth’s surface.

Another rocket, built by a team of student interns at United Launch Alliance, fired off the largest sport rocket on record, 16m tall and over 1,000 pounds. This one served another purpose: carrying 16 packets of mementos and cards from students K-12, it was meant to inspire those students into STEM paths of their own.

The turnout this year was a massive increase over the attendance at the last ESRA event, which garnered 40 teams in 2016, and had outgrown its venue. The much larger facilities of Spaceport America will allow the new competition to continue growing, giving more and more engineering students the impetus to look to the stars.

Participants in the ESRA competition have gone on to employment in Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, ULA, and NASA, proving that the competition moves lives forward. It’s certain that technology made by some of these past students is in space today, either on the ISS or in orbit in some other way.

21 different awards went out for various achievements in all kinds of flight and design, backed by many of those same companies and also Virgin Galactic, which owns a controlling interest in Spaceport America. It was held over the weekend of June 24th, 2017.

From Pranks to Profit

A photo of the Georgia Tech building.

Georgia Tech, located in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

It seems like a very minor piece of hacking—Georgia Tech student Ryan Pickren used an HTML loophole to sneak into the event calendar of rival college University of Georgia to post this message on the date of a football game between the two schools:

Sat., November 29, 2014 / 12:00 pm / Get Ass Kicked by GT.

Inter-school pranks are a long American tradition, but the simple elegance of this one made national news when it happened in 2014. Pickren was arrested and convicted of felony computer trespassing, but it seems the judge was nearly as admiring of the prank as his own grandfather. The offense is punishable by a maximum of 15 years in jail and a $50,000 fine. Pickren got 12 months of community service. After completing that, which he did in early 2016, his record was wiped clean.

More than that, the computer engineering student, who was able to continue working on his degree during his sentence, has been deluged with job offers. His community service was served at Techbridge, a nonprofit tech-support agency for other nonprofits. In that time, he developed security tools to protect clients from hackers like himself.

Now he’s working in the security sector. He is the top contributor to United Airlines’ Bug Bounty Program, a freelance initiative wherein UA rewards hackers for finding and reporting security flaws in their digital presence.

With the only rule being that hackers have to keep their fingers off of any onboard systems, the program gives away up to a million free air miles for every flaw found. If they’re found, they can be fixed. The program debuted shortly after a security researcher tweeted that he could hack the onboard system to drop its air masks.

Pickren, who chose to work in United Airlines’ program mostly because he needed the air miles to help him through an out-of-state internship that would have resulted in a lot of travel, says that he grew quickly to love the work. He’s earned over 15,000,000 frequent flier miles, a third of which he’s donated to his school.

Teen Develops App to Help Others Make Friends at Lunch

A photo of a young boy looking down at the ground as his fellow classmates point and laugh at him.

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Bullying is a serious issue as it can have repercussions throughout a child’s life. Study after study has shown that it’s a problem that we have to tackle, and there have been numerous suggestions on just how to do that. We know, for example, that when the “cool kids” take a stand against bullying, it tends to catch on and reduce student conflict overall. We also know that kids can be bullied for almost anything, so finding ways to prevent them from becoming targets in the first place can have a strong impact on a student’s life.

High school junior Natalie Hampton knows that all too well. She spent her entire 7th grade year sitting alone at lunch. She was the target of a lot of bullying and her self-esteem suffered tremendously. Bullies tend to pick on kids who are perceived as weaker than themselves, and the implied rejection of always sitting alone signals weakness.

That’s why Hampton has developed a mobile app called Sit With Us, which allows kids to find table with open chairs that they can feel welcome at. Users can sign up as ambassadors, who are willing to open up their table to new faces, or they can look for tables that have ambassadors. She launched the app early in the school year and is already getting positive feedback on it.

Hampton is an example of a student who’s thinking about the bigger picture and who managed to take her personal experiences of bullying and funnel it into a constructive project. While she’s set an excellent example for other kids, she’s also set an excellent example for educators. Educators have a different perspective on bullying and they usually have a better understanding of the psychology behind it as well. Educators should use their own knowledge to the best of their advantage to help students feel included.

In An Age of Technology, Does Handwriting Matter?

A close-up image of a young boy writing in cursive.

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If you’re on Facebook at all, you’ve probably seen the image of cursive writing that reads something like “In the future, this will be a secret code.”

This meme was formed in response to the removal of cursive writing from elementary school curricula when the Common Core standards replaced handwriting with a goal of competency in keyboarding rather than penmanship.

For those of us who grew up in a bygone era, learning cursive was almost a rite of passage: “grown-up writing” enabled us to write more quickly than standard printing, and it also, at least in theory, offered neurological benefits to those who learned it.

But is handwriting really necessary in an age of technology?

Anne Trubek, a self-admitted “left-hander with terrible handwriting” who watched her own son struggle with penmanship, argues that it isn’t.

“The desire to write faster has driven innovations throughout history: Ballpoint pens replaced quill pens; typewriters improved on pens; and computers go faster than typewriters. Why go back?” she writes.

Having seen some school kids practically standing on their heads as they attempt to hold a pencil or pen, we can certainly understand where the view of handwriting as an unnecessary struggle has its origin. But the fact is, at least one study has shown that learning how to write is crucial to learning how to read.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did functional MRI scans on children before and after they learned how to print. Before, “Their brains [didn’t] distinguish letters; they respond[ed] to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said. But after they were taught to print, they responded to letters differently and there was increased activation of an area of the brain responsible for our ability to read and process written language. Some experts also argue that cursive writing helps children learn how to spell and write better.

Ultimately though, even if schools end up focusing exclusively on keyboarding at the expense of teaching the ability to write quickly and legibly, the fact is that technology is not infallible and kids do need to learn how to write by hand. Whether that writing is in print or in cursive matters less than the fact that they know how to hold a pen and put letters onto paper. Being able to sign your name is also a good skill to have.

What do you think? Are you in favor of children learning to write cursive, or do you believe it’s an antiquated system of writing that isn’t necessary in today’s technological age? Let us know in the comments.

Robot Can Shoot Rocks with Lasers…On its Own

An image of Mars from the rover.

Image: Shutterstock

There’s a robot on Mars with lasers… and it gets to choose its own victims. This isn’t a science fiction story, and don’t worry, that robot doesn’t want to kill humans. The robot in question is the Curiosity Mars rover, which has been cruising around Mars and taking all kinds of samples for several years now. One of it’s many tools is called ChemCam, which is a laser system mounted on the top of its mast. ChemCam can zap rocks to find out their chemical composition.

This is an incredibly useful tool because it allows us to learn a lot more about those rocks than photos would ever tell us. For the most part, the rocks Curiosity shoots are chosen by scientists back here on Earth, based on what looks interesting from here. But they’ve recently uploaded some new software, called AEGIS, which lets Curiosity identify and target some rocks on its own. There are quite a few benefits of this.

For one, there isn’t always somebody on staff to keep an eye on Curiosity in case it stops by some compelling rocks. As such, there are certainly times when the rover wouldn’t be taking those kinds of samples, and that’s inefficient. No scientist wants to have too little data when they can possibly have too much, least of all NASA.

Another benefit is accuracy and time management. When scientists picked rocks in the past, they’d have to take several shots at them to make sure they hit them with the ChemCam laser. But the AEGIS system vastly improves Curiosity’s aim. That’s useful when it’s choosing its own targets, but it also helps when we’re picking those targets. With the AEGIS system, once a rock is chosen as a target (regardless of who is choosing it) the laser can hit it right on target the first time, and then move onto other samples more quickly.

Can Pokémon Go Be Used As An Educational Tool?

A young boy finds a Pokémon on his cell phone.

A young boy using the Pokémon Go app. Image: MichaelJayBerlin / Shutterstock

A quick summary in case there’s someone still out there who’s not familiar with Pokemon Go: The newest installment in Pokemon’s 20-year history of video games, the popular phone app requires players to walk around the real world to find virtual locations and virtual creatures, all the while collecting, strategizing, and battling. Immediately after it’s launch in July, it surpassed Twitter to become the most-downloaded app ever, and the largest mobile game in the history of the industry.

Creator Niantic wisely chose to release the walking-based game in midsummer, but as September approaches, parents and teachers alike are curious about the game’s educational potential. On the flip side of the coin, others are worried about privacy and safety risks.

The game features local landmarks across the country as Pokéstops—places where players collect in-game items—which educators are hoping will spur a widespread interest in students who want to learn about local history and resources. Players online have been talking excitedly about discovering features of their own towns that they’d never known before.

In the words of James Gee, a researcher in educational video gaming from Arizona State University, the app “enchants the environment.” After all, it is firing up a new interest in real world surroundings. The non-gaming generation has long bemoaned youth’s alleged lack of interest in their environment. With Pokémon Go, school-aged children can rediscover their home towns, and even organize outings and clean-up events in popular places.

Players can also use features of the game to track individual Pokémon, teaching them the concepts of triangulation and orienteering. Math, too, is a part of the game for those who want to calculate which of their Pokemon will evolve into the strongest creature at which level.

The biggest concern of detractors is that of safety and privacy (players have been accosted while following the game into unsafe areas, and game play requires your phone to be tracking you at all times). But with prudence and supervision, it will be interesting to see how education becomes the next thing to enfold this social mega-phenomenon.