Féileacán media: Press Release

Selected PRESS CLIPPINGS for the show:

Technology shows flair in dealing with disability.

Irish Times 6 June 2003
By KARLIN LILLINGTON / 927 words / English / (c) 2003

Playing around with an “avatar” a computerised, animated character which can represent you onscreen in cyberspace, and that you control – is pretty cool stuff. It’s especially cool when you are a kid in a wheelchair, and the avatar lets you move and dance and interact with other friendly avatars up on a giant screen, and even gives you the chance to perform onstage before an audience.

The avatars – in this case, giant butterflies – are part of an unusual project at Dublin’s Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) called Feileacan (“butterfly” in Irish), which combines complex human/machine interfaces and virtual reality computer graphics tools. Controlled by modified joysticks and microphones that will respond to gentle blows rather than voice commands, the children and their butterflies will be

part of a networked dance performance at the Seventh Annual European Disability Conference in Dublin, August 31st to September 3rd. Feileacan is just one way in which computers and kids with disabilities are being brought together by an Irish-based, international collaboration between leading technologists and health care professionals. They’re teaming up to find more creative ways for young people with disabilities to learn and interact.

“Our mantra is that we want to expand human potential through innovation, and we really believe that every person deserves to benefit from technology,” says Mr Gary McDarby, a researcher with Media Lab Europe (MLE), the Dublin spin-off of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. MLE and the CRC are partnering with New York University, London media and idea incubation centre Smart Lab UK, and New York’s Montefiore Hospital.

Children at the CRC are trying out a range of technologies along with kids from three Irish schools for children with disabilities: Scoil Mochua in Clondalkin, St Gabriel’s School in Limerick and St Clare’s School, Ennis. Ms Kate Brehm, researcher with NYU’s Center for Advanced Technology, says the avatars offer a kind of “virtual puppetry” that lets children control their onscreen characters with the same techniques needed to manoeuvre their wheelchairs.

“This is quite an innovative and flexible set of learning projects,” says Mr Ger Craddock, manager of technical services at Dublin’s Central Remedial Clinic. The clinic children have workshops to use the technologies twice a week, he said, and because of the interactive nature of the projects, are meeting children they otherwise would rarely, if ever, see. Another virtual interactive world, called Still Life, uses mind-calming virtual-reality “energy orbs” to improve co-ordination and concentration. A child can sit or stand before a computer screen holding a sensor-filled orb (a large ball) in each hand – one orange, one yellow. On the screen are two swirling energy fields, one orange and one yellow. The computer senses where the orbs are in the child’s hands, and tracks their movement across the screen.
The child tries to remain still while moving the ball to match its energy force on screen. When that happens, there’s an explosion of colour, and slowly, a large puzzle piece appears. Gradually, a jigsaw of an otherworldly landscape begins to fill the screen.

“There’s a lot of sophisticated technology behind what looks like a very simple interface. This is really looking at computer vision in a new way,” says Mr McDarby. The game requires a complex tracking mechanism, the ability to monitor feedback from multiple sensors, and intelligence to filter out background colours that could be incorrectly read as the two orbs. Several other projects are in the works. Researchers have set up a basic webcam network between the CRC and the three schools, for example. So far, the network lets children
in the two Dublin locations to talk to and see others in Limerick and Ennis. The network is limited by the slow speed of the internet link, which is dial-up access in each location except the CRC, which is on ISDN. Surely an ideal project for a broadband operator in Dublin, Ennis and Limerick?

The projects demonstrate how technology can be put to work alongside people with disabilities to create a more inclusive world. That’s the theme behind the conference at the end of summer, when professionals from around the world will come to UCD to discuss assistive technologies and how they might do even more in the future. You’d think this would be the ideal year for Dublin to host such a conference, as it is the European Year of People with Disabilities as well as the year when the Republic will host the Special Olympics World Games.

But Mr Craddock says the organisers face extra challenges precisely for those reasons. Many firms are sponsoring the Olympics and haven’t the budget to support the conference, and news about the conference is hard to hear above the publicity for the Games. And the Government says its budgets are also tight. The organisers could use some industry help to sponsor elements of the conference, from keynotes to individual sessions to lunches. They also need a sponsor to publish the proceedings, which will go to libraries around the world. They also have a major exhibition of assistive technologies at UCD’s O’Reilly Hall that will be open to the public during the conference, and have spaces for additional exhibitors.

More information at www.atireland.ie/aaate, or contact Mr Craddock at graddock(at)crc.ie,
or (01) 805-7523. klillington(at)irish-times.ie Karlin’s tech weblog:
http://radio.weblogs.com/0103966.

Virtues of virtual dance.

Irish Times
2 September 2003

1,351 words / English / (c) 2003

A computer program can enable people with disabilities to ‘dance’ on screen, with health and artistic benefits, writes Michael Seaver

‘We’re just going to try a little experiment,” says a voice in a broad Nobber accent, the speaker’s head disappearing into a mass of cables coming out of the back of a computer. Dancers are standing watching, hands on hips. Eventually they go back to rehearsing moves. In another corner are three Americans, recently arrived in Ireland, who are editing sounds and tweaking visuals on laptops. In the middle a lone figure hunched over another laptop types instructions and glances up at the results on a video projection. I’m sitting in the middle of this, watching the worlds of science and dance collide.

The location is MediaLab Europe, in what used to be the Guinness Hop Store in Dublin, and the rehearsal is for Counterbalance, a dance project made up of able-bodied and disabled dancers. They will perform tonight at the O’Reilly Hall in Dublin, at the opening of Shaping the Future, the seventh conference of the Association for the Advancement of Assisted Technology in Europe. Counterbalance is just part of a performance that brings together projects in development at MediaLab Europe, CAT Lab in New York and SMARTlab in London and applies them in a performance context.

The “little experiment” has worked, and we can now see projections on two big screens. Canadian Robert Burke boots up Still Life, a computer program he has developed at MediaLab that tracks the motion of two orbs, which in reality are two oversized tennis balls. The result is amazing. A camera is focused on one of the dancers holding the orbs; this image is projected onto the screen, but there are also two shimmering lights that flit about it. The dancer “catches” these with the two orbs, and her image freezes and dissolves into a picture of a landscape, only to reappear when she moves again. “I wrote the program over a few days,” says Burke, “and then developed it further with people in the Central Remedial Clinic. The idea was to find a way to make physiotherapy a bit more interesting. A lot of the time people have to do monotonous movements every day as part of their physiotherapy, so this program means they can move their arms by chasing the light around the screen and have fun while exercising.” He is working on a permanent version for the clinic that will be intuitive enough to be used by physiotherapists with no computer or technical training.

Burke is part of a group at MediaLab called Mind Games, which works on a number of projects in body and movement awareness. Relax To Win is a computer game controlled by sensors that monitor stress levels through measuring pulse, breathing and temperature. Your character in the game is in a race but moves faster the more relaxed you are – so, unlike conventional, tension-inducing computer games, it forces players to reduce their stress levels. Similarly, Breathing Space used breath sensors to move a character in a race, changing speed with the amount of breath used. As it can differentiate between deep diaphragmatic breathing and shallow breaths, children unable to move their bodies can control a character in a video game, so experiencing and controlling movement.

“The most ambitious program we are developing is called Brain Child, which is for children who would be unable to use a joystick or any other input device. We use an EEG interface that monitors brain activity. If you move your right hand the brain will create electric signals that we will monitor. But if you just think about moving your right hand we can pick up about 50 per cent of the same signals. In other words it is technically possible to visualise motion, so you can make a computer figure move a certain way just by thinking about it.”

So far Mind Games has been collaborating with organisations such as the Central Remedial Clinic and the Higher Education Authority; now it is moving into performance and, by working with the Counterbalance project, applying the ideas to both dance and disability. “The process of working with the dancers has been great because it’s pushed us into new directions,” says Burke.

Cathy O’Kennedy, a choreographer and self-confessed technophobe, asked him if it was possible to track movement rather than objects, so he went back to the program and made some changes. “For us the ability to track free movement unhindered by objects was important,” she says, “and since we are working with people with disabilities the possibility to track even the smallest movement was just as important.” A driving force behind uniting dance, disability and technology is Lizbeth Goodman, director of the SMARTlab Digital Media Institute for Site-Specific Media, Performing and Digital Arts. “I have always been interested in this type of work. I did a lot of volunteer work with deaf children many years go, but my first professional job after my
PhD was with the BBC, making interactive drama, and the first thing we did was look at multimedia and how deaf and blind people respond to it.

“About six or seven years later I was heading up a PhD programme for artists using technology, and two of my students who were both dancers were doing research on dance and phenomenology. One had a severe neurological condition and the other had had an accident, which meant that they were both in wheelchairs around the second year of their PhD. By the time they finished they were not able to move freely at all. “The focus of the group began to change in response to that, and a major focus of our work became the creating. We then began developing virtual puppets or avatars that could move in a virtual space.” She worked with the Mind Games group and Brian Duffy of MediaLab on the avatars and has developed a performance with a group from the Central Remedial Clinic.

Kate Brehm, of CAT Lab in New York, has worked with group of Irish teenagers on a butterfly puppet that will also “perform” at tonight’s show. “There will be two groups,” she says, “one performing live in the O’Reilly Hall and another in the MediaLab building. The performance will be beamed to the group at MediaLab, which will control the butterfly puppets that are projected behind the group dancing. In this way they can interact and even control the performance. “We have worked with sound montages that will also interact with [the traditional group/] Kila, who will be performing live for the dance. The long-term benefits for this technology lie in its ability to bring people together from different parts of the world and allow them to perform together, and it’s our aim to integrate this technology into children’s hospitals and schools.” The Shaping the Future conference has offered Counterbalance an opportunity to relaunch. “The impetus came from a colloquium for members of Project arts centre last year, where discussion arose about whether education or community arts work could be cutting edge,” says O’Kennedy. “I argued that the words ‘community’, ‘education’ and ‘cutting edge’ were not mutually exclusive and afterwards began reminiscing with Colm O’Briain about the Counterbalance project that had happened in the mid-1990s under the auspices of Very Special Arts at City Arts Centre.
He then heard about the Shaping the Future conference and saw it as a possibility to regenerate Counterbalance.” The interaction with MediaLab has enabled Counterbalance to expand its existing model and look at different ways of moving, but the two-pronged approach of workshops and performances remains. One is facilitative and offers a space to explore integrated dance experiences; the performances, with smaller groups, allow audiences to witness movement, both real and virtual, through bodies that they might not normally consider watching.

Counterbalance will perform at Riverbank Arts Centre in Newbridge on September 27th and in Castlebar on November 15th

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