Astral Convertible Reimagined Set

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Construction details, individual pictures, and the set in operation during performance

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Astral Convertible Installation last day

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“Logistical Carnival” Tuesday night

Last night we had our “Logistical Carnival,” as we called it, where we put the towers on stage with lights, speakers and sound system, Arduino boards with xBee wireless modems, and batteries. We also had projections on the cyc behind the towers as well as on the towers themselves. When the dancers arrived, we put a sensor on Annie F., to see how that was functioning. Then there was a semi-run through of the dance, to see the technical aspects of the production in relation to the movement in the choreography.

Before the dancers arrived, Chris were busy putting the lights together, as I was setting up a computer table for myself and Jihyuk Choi (xBee/wireless programmer) and Mary Petrowicz (machine learning from dancer-attached accelerometer data). Rebecca was helping with whatever she could, Ann DeVelder was present to help with accelerometers, Michael Williams was setting up projectors for Brett Jones and Raj Sodhi, Ken Beck was setting up the audio project boxes, Terri Ciofalo was organizing the scene, Lara Wilder was working on lighting, Donna Cox, Bob Patterson, and Alex Betts were experimenting with cyc graphics, Regina Garcia and Jamie were dealing with sets and helping out where they could, and I’m sure there were several other people, particularly in the stage management area, that were coming around to help set things up and get everything prepared for our tech experiments. It was a busy and very exciting and fun scene.

I was pleased with the technical experiments. The wireless communication worked in every place it was supposed to work for at least a significant amount of time. I was able to control the tower lights until at a certain time something happened with Max/MSP and my laptop and I lost control of serial data. I was also able to trigger tracks on the Daisy mp3 player, as well as turn on and off the sound from an mp3 player attached to another audio project box. So all of that was a success, at least in significant part. There is troubleshooting to be done, particularly as to why the wireless serial communication just stopped working after awhile, and why the Daisy’s sound output was so distorted. But I am confident we will get to the root of these problems.

The graphics for the production had there premiere tonight, and much discussion was had about them. The amount of ambient light coming from the towers is a bit problematic, as we’d though it might. But we got a good look at them in something of the eventual environment in which they’ll be seen. The light spill from the towers washed out the cyc quite a bit. So we’re going to try a black scrim in front of the cyc, and perhaps higher contrast graphical content.

The towers and tower projections were quite lovely, and Kathleen liked them quite a bit. So that, at least, is a keeper. There was minimal sound, and Kathleen and I were to have a meeting/listening session about sound on Tuesday (which we did).

There was much learned at the Logistical Carnival. Lighting, audio, and projections all produced interesting observations. And Mary was able to collect good dancer accelerometer data, as well as have a little time to sneak in some time training her software. So it was a fruitful evening, indeed

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Problems with Sensing Gestures

It’s been awhile since the last post. In between, I’ve been back to america and returned to Turin. While in the states, I worked with Mary on the sensor system, as I had a complete breakdown in the functioning of the gesture recognition system. It took us awhile to figure out what was going wrong, but eventually we figured out that it was two things: one a simple yet confusing data flow problem, the other a more conceptual issue with longer term ramifications.

The data flow issue took quite a bit of fumbling through to figure out. Mary was using the same patches and having no problems with getting models recognized in the software, yet I couldn’t get the system to interpret any data at all. But eventually the problem turned out to be an issue with Max/MSP screen order. This issue doesn’t usually raise it’s head with experienced Max programmers, but let this be a warning in complicated patches that these things can happen and really trip you up!

Now today I discovered thAt the training I did yesterday is a total bust because the sensor assembly has broken. The constant strain of use is beginning to take its toll on the equipment. Thus the musician/engineer/producer is running into maintenance issues. Another hat to don!

(speaking of hats, you might want to check out this video of the local army regiments called the “Bersiglieri,” who waer these amazing feathered hats and run while playing their band music. Really quite fun!)

The further conceptual issue (actually there are two of them, which I’ll get to…) has to do with what defines a gesture, and how we think of gesture in dance. When I showed Mary the gestures we we working with, she identified them as either consisting of mulitple gestures ( I guess you can call them “compound” gestures) or as being gestures that are not distinctive enough one from the other to be recognized as different. So now we think: okay, our human perspective on gesture is much more subtle and full of meaning than what a simple sensor can pick up. Sober probably have to attack this problem from multiple fronts. From a hardware perspective, what sensors or combination of them would work best for this idea? Certainly the couple that we are working with are inadequate for the huge range of movement that we are capable of. But then, of course, we run up against the problem of how to create a sensor system that is comfortable to move in., yet not too complicated to assimilate in terms of data processsing ( for real world use in the theater).

From a physical perspective, what do we perceive, internally, as a gesture? When does it start and end, what are the significant parts of it? What can be left out and still create meaning? And how much variation can there be before meaning is lost? So Mary was saying how the computer probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish among some of Renata’s gestures, yet why do they seem so different to us? Is it the quality of the movement? Is it just the vector picture of them? Are we able to accomodate to the sensing abilities of the sensors?

So to proceed from hre, practically, we have to identify those specific parts of the gestures we are working with, and train on those, in order to distinguish. But how much less limiting, and how much more meaningful, to do determinations of human meaning on the quality of the movement rather than a library of specific gestures. Such a library might be useful for every day communication, but not for an art form as sophisticated and subtle as contemporary dance. In writing this, I am struck by the need for some basic vector (shape) information, coupled with quality information, to build a complete picture.

So tomorrow, I am going back to the idea of training Laban movement qualities, to see if the computer can pick them up at all. Specific gestures are becoming somewhat useless, as te dance is changing midstream, as they are wont to do.

The other conceptual wrestling match we are engaged in is the Sound Spheres idea, and how to let it guide is and to represent it in our theatrical production. But this post is already long enough for one day… More tomorrow.

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Day Two: “Shift”

I just found out today that the working title of the dance is “Shift.” Which is appropriate, as things have shifted a bit this evening. Today was a day of getting the sensors, and the machine-learning algorithm that they integrate with, set up and running on my own (I’ve always had my team of programmers with me, but now I’m here with only remote backup). But with a little SKYPE and email help from Mary, everything seems ‘golden’, as they say in Chicago.

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, his project is being sponsored by the VRMMP, and Paolo and Renata are producing this dance under some loose requirements that it contribute not only to Paolo’s professional development, but now it seems to also contribute to the development of VRMMP’s real-time modeling application called ‘MESH.’ I didn’t realize until today how important that part of the puzzle is, but after another wonderful Italian meal (featuring two special dishes, Burata, a super-rich cheese and cream ball served on a bed of pizza dough and arugala with tomatoes; and Zeppole, a wonderful cream-puff sort of doughnut dessert—I am SO full! Grazie, Vincenzo!!), a discussion with Vincenzo Lombardo, VRMMP’s director, revealed just how important integrating live performance into MESH is to this project. So, this is tomorrow’s challenge—to figure out OSC hooks into MESH and how real-time dance performance can integrate with this 3D modeling application. AND make it make sense with our SoundSpheres concept. An interesting ingredient for the artistic recipe…

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First post…long time coming

I and a wonderful team of collaborators at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have been working for over a year now on this project, “reimagining” and restaging the dance work Astral Convertible, by choreographer Trisha Brown. I should have been documenting in a blog all along, but oh well, “better late than never.” Today’s post concerns yesterdays work, which was done at the wonderful Digital Performance Laboratory at NCSA. At noon, Mary Petrowicz and I met to view the video of the run-through of the dance, which was held in the Krannert Dance Rehearsal room on Friday Sept. 18. The aims of this session were to

  1. Identity both qualities of movement, and specific gestures in the dance, that would lend themselves to the machine learning algorithms Mary has developed for use in the performance,
  2. Identify group dynamics and behaviors that could also work in her machine learning system,
  3. Determine the best location for a second sensor attached to the dancers’ bodies.

We identified a list, and next rehearsal we will hopefully get some dancers to wear the sensors and try to train the computer to recognize the qualities and gestures. In the meantime, Mary will be working on updating and extending her machine learning models to incorporate these new observations.

For a little interlude, Mary and I began explaining the sensors and the entire system design to Rebecca Walter, a graduate student at UIUC Dance, who will be assisting me with various aspects of the production.

Afterwards, I worked for several hours with Ken Beck, who is designing our electronic lighting control and sound producing/shaping circuits, to test and troubleshoot the new circuit boards he has assembled. The first one is a relay system for switching light circuits from the Arduino boards we are using as control boards in the set towers ( During this trial, I discovered that the serial code designed by our wireless systems programmer, Jihyuk Choi, is not transmittable by the limited capabilities of the serial object in Max/MSP, the control software I am using for the show. So I used Max to create the messages, and sent them to the Arduino wirelessly via CoolTerm terminal software instead. The serial code works perfectly, switching the relays to turn the lights on and off. So far so good.

The second circuit tested was the on/off volume control for the iPod connection to the amplifiers. This circuit also worked perfectly with the serial commands. The third circuit tested, a sound-producing circuit based on designs by Nicolas Collins, had some flaws, and Ken is going to trouble shoot later.

The work day ended at 7 pm. Much was done, much was learned, and there’s much to do.

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Welcome to Astral Convertible @ UIUC

Welcome to this blog, which will document progress towards the restaging of the “reimagined” dance Astral Convertible by the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Performance is scheduled during our February Dance concert at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (KCPA). John Toenjes, the keeper of this blog, is the Music Director for the Department, and is in charge of making sure the design and technology of the set is ready to go by performance time. (More to come about collaborators and design…)

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