Workshop at Stevenson University explores the emerging art form of 'augmented reality'

After taping an 8- by 10-inch drawing of a Chinese dragon to a white board in an art classroom at Stevenson University, Carlson Bull handed over an iPad with the instruction to aim it at the illustration and wait for mobile augmented reality to unfold.

With both hands gripping the tablet computer as if it were a steering wheel, the tester was able to "look through" the device like a window and watch, in 3-D, as the vividly colored creature peered out of a hole in the wall, glanced furtively around and gracefully flew away.

Aiming the iPad like an electronic window pane at a specially coded card lying on a drawing table elicited a similar 3-D experience. A viewer watched as the latest athletic shoe suddenly plopped down on the table out of thin air and spun around in a circle to show off its stylish, and most likely expensive, features.

Augmented reality, or AR, is such a cutting-edge concept that it's mostly for show right now, says Bull, who is artist-in-residence for the spring semester at the small, private university in Greenspring Valley.

It's based on a melding of "computer vision and object recognition to allow us to project digital content into real-world scenes," he explained.

But the 13 students in the visual communication design department who signed up for the intense three-day workshop called "Art in Culture" in order to work with the 3-D animation and game design-studio owner were learning about its intricacies and potential as they consider careers in the motion graphics field.

"Students today are growing up as digital natives, so the lines between traditional media and digital media are being blurred," said Amanda Hostalka, art professor and department chairwoman.

And should the Disney movie "Tron" comes\ to mind while envisioning these seemingly futuristic scenarios, stop and consider this: The simplified plot of the 1982 science fiction film focused on a character being sucked into another 3-D world. AR brings the "I'm-inside-a-video-game" experience to the player instead.

"AR can happen right where you are," explained Hostalka, "and it can enhance what you're doing."

AR is a like an advanced form of QR, which is short for quick response code. A QR is the black-and-white square with a matrix design that is showing up with increasing frequency in publications and on coffee cups and other products. Hold a smart phone up to the code and it will link the phone's computer to an advertiser's website for further information or online shopping.

Because augmented reality is "so technologically advanced and so aesthetically pleasing," it is being accepted as an art form, said George Moore, assistant art professor. That elevation of AR's intrinsic value helped spur the invitation to Bull to share his expertise at the school.

Bull, who co-founded Bully! Entertainment in 2006 at age 35, said he wanted to bring the emerging media concept to the students, but also present it with an accompanying challenge.

"I wanted them to start thinking about ways AR could help society so we could get past the 'cool little gimmick' aspect of it," he said.

With that mission in mind, he asked them to examine Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a theory designed by psychologist Abraham Maslow that uses a food pyramid-type illustration to delineate human needs.

"I was pleasantly surprised how well they were thinking through their projects," Bull said.

Nathan Moe, a junior and art major from Ellicott City, said the entire workshop centered on "taking AR from a 'wow' factor to utilizing it as a way to make life better for people."

Moe explained that students formed teams that were tasked with impressing Bull as if he were their client. He and his teammates designed an AR app for a police force that would aid officers in quickly identifying criminals in a crowd through facial recognition, alerting them if someone is armed with a weapon, and tracking escaped criminals still on the scene.

"It would be fast, labor-saving and results-oriented," he said. So that police officers could use it hands-free, the team recommended the app be transferred from a tablet to 3-D glasses.

Another team project took the concept of touring the Stevenson campus up a notch.

Meghan Najewicz, a junior from Perry Hall, said a visitor or new student could use an iPad with an AR app to take a self-guided tour of the Stevenson campus and "see" what's inside buildings, for example.

"It could also be used to tell you if a class has been canceled or whether a certain professor was there that day," she said.

Hostalka said that Stevenson staff and administration "like to fancy ourselves as being aware of what's coming down the pike," and sponsoring Bull's residency is a prime example of that.

"Carlson's work is cutting edge and he's helped our students get up-to-speed on emerging technologies," she said.

Moore concurred, then turned back to the students and asked whether bringing in someone like Bull helped them think about what they want to do after graduation.

Pat Turner, a senior from Towson who plans to graduate in December, called Bull's sessions "a great inspiration."

"We've gained all these skills and I really enjoyed learning more about this field," he said, referring to motion graphics. "We keep hearing that AR is gimmicky, but it seems like the next natural progression in where we're heading."

Moe said college graduates in today's world "need to prepare for a wide range of job opportunities and the university's internship program is an incredibly beneficial way of helping us ease into the real world."

Hostalka said that Stevenson is committed to preparing its students for what lies ahead by weaving career preparation into the curriculum, no matter what designated career track they choose.

Turner summed it up nicely when he described the bonus he derived from attending the three-day AR workshop as "the chocolate they leave you on a [hotel] pillow."

"The experience has also made me realize that we all need to cast a wider net and take into account every skill we have when we apply for jobs," he said.

Bull said that some of the students' ideas worked better than others, as he expected would happen, but he described the thought processes behind everyone's projects as "most engaging."

"To develop a real strong visual pitch takes weeks and they accomplished a lot in a few days," he said.

"The students threw out really interesting ideas on how their projects could be implemented, and they realized that they need to be highly proficient in a number of different skills to be successful," he said. "It was an intriguing experience."

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