Copyright 2003 The Irish Times  
The Irish Times


September 2, 2003


LENGTH: 1308 words

HEADLINE: Virtues of virtual dance
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 Centre for Site-Specific Media, Performing and Digital Arts. "I am legally blind myself so 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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