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Orb II
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Patricia Olynyk’s “Orb II” is part of Rensselaer’s bioart collection.
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Research at EMPAC

Although the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) didn’t open until fall 2008, the building has already inspired pioneering research. The 217,000-square-foot facility, designed to be both a performance center and a platform that links experimental arts and research, will provide resources for multidisciplinary work in such fields as visualization, animation, simulation, and acoustics. The building also will enrich a wide range of research fields by providing the ability to test things in real space. In the studios, for example, molecular biologists will be able to project biological structural models. Systems engineers could recreate the Internet as a virtual environment to walk through, and an engineer studying water flow could turn mathematical formulas into a visual model.

To encourage interdisciplinary programs that will leverage the potential of the new building, Rensselaer’s Office of Research has supported a number of seed projects, which are expected to lead to new programs and funding at the interface of the arts, sciences, engineering, and technology. One has already served as a catalyst in the creation of a new research and academic program — bioart. Rensselaer awarded a seed grant for “The Asthma Files,” a collaboration that is bringing together materials from diverse disciplines to create a public archive, illustrating the complex interaction of biology, environment, and social policy on asthma. The seed grant led to bioart, a collaboration between the Arts Department and the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. An emerging discipline, bioart is dedicated to exploring and employing the life sciences through artistic means to promote public understanding and awareness of highly complex scientific practices and issues.

In another project, an EMPAC film project led to the development of a sound-tracking system. EMPAC commissioned the Wooster Group, a New York City ensemble, to create “There Is Still Time... Brother.” The film is a recording of a performance developed specifically to be viewed as a projection on a 360-degree screen, with the audience standing in the center. Jonas Braasch, assistant professor in Rensselaer’s architectural acoustics program, received a seed grant to develop a system that picks up the voices of individual players, discovers their location, and reproduces them as coming from the proper points in the circular screening area.

Ron Eglash, associate professor of science and technology studies, and Mukkai Krishnamoorthy, associate professor of computer science, created and tested software and a user interface to simulate human dance patterns in 3-D. The work launched a new research focus by Eglash and Krishnamoorthy in the ethnomathematics of dance. Their earlier research attracted an NSF-BPC (Broadening Participation in Computing) grant to translate the mathematical concepts embedded in cultural designs of various populations into software tools for teaching math and IT to secondary school minority youth. The NSF grant is now supporting the team members as they modify the dance simulation to create a tool for teaching programming skills to high school minority students.

Suvranu De, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Shivkumar Kalyanaraman, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, are working on “teletouch,” the ability to send the sensation of touch over long distances. With NIH funding, De and his collaborators developed a system to combine the sense of touch with 3-D computer models of organs to create a virtual simulator for training surgeons. In this new project, De heads a team that is developing a shared virtual environment with haptic (sense of touch) capability as well as visual and auditory feedback. The goal is to create an Internet-aware system that can be tuned to the computational capacity of the client computer and is also scalable to the quality of available network resources for the connection between client and server.

The growing field of “haptics” is finding an increasing role in design, modeling, and other techno-artistic applications, De says. “Current advances in science and technology are making it possible, for the first time, to reach out and interact with computer-generated environments, shake hands across continents, and create phantasms where the sensory modalities intermingle and coalesce creating the illusion of ‘touching the sound’ or ‘seeing the music.’ EMPAC will provide the perfect forum for these applications.”

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