Digital media scholars converge for first symposium
Experts in digital media from across USC gathered Dec. 7-8 for a retreat based on the premise that in the virtual world, as in the real, the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.
The first USC Symposium on Digital Media attracted more than 80 researchers active in digital scholarship at more than a dozen schools and units, demonstrating the strength and breadth of the discipline at USC.
Elizabeth Garrett, USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, recognized the strength and variety of the university’s digital media research groups in her opening remarks, noting the synergy between the university and its location.
“Los Angeles is the premier city for digital media and creative expression in the world,” she said, “and USC has used the resources and character of the region to shape our reputation of excellence.”
Vice President for Research Randolph Hall, who organized the symposium, called it an opportunity to raise the profile of digital media scholarship at USC by creating new opportunities for research with societal impact.
“The goal is to build the university’s leadership in digital media and to firmly establish ourselves as the leading university in the world for developing content, developing technology and addressing the policy issues surrounding digital media,” he said. “We need to identify any gaps and fill them, and then present ourselves to the world so that we are deeply connected to the consumer and private sector as well as academia.”
Keynote speaker Peter Chernin, who led News Corp. from 1996 to 2009 during a period of rapid ascent, said the university has a geographical advantage because of the concentration of video, film and gaming companies in Los Angeles.
“You are uniquely positioned for that nexus of technology and content,” Chernin said.
Throughout the symposium, presenters from USC revealed the diverse digital media activities currently taking place at the university.
Scott Fisher, associate dean of research at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, highlighted a range of innovations at the country’s No. 1 cinema school, including experiments with head-mounted displays that promise to make the technology affordable to anyone with a smartphone or tablet.
He also described advances in immersive audio and video, in synchronous performances over a network and in manipulation of large sets of data on a screen that realized the futuristic vision of Tom Cruise’s character in Minority Report less than five years after the movie’s release.
Randall Hill Jr., director of the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and research professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, described “Digital Media Game Changers” from one of the world’s leading centers for research on artificial intelligence. He noted the proliferation of virtual humans, which have advanced to the point of finding useful applications in training and education.
The institute’s latest progeny are twins Ada and Grace, demure guides who have been on duty at the Museum of Science in Boston for the past three years. There they answer guests’ pertinent questions and cheerfully deflect impertinent ones (Question: “Do you have boyfriends?” Answer: “Why, do you think there is another virtual human we should meet?”).
Hill also described new systems that try to perceive a human’s body language and tone of voice, to enable more natural conversation with a virtual human; tools that will let anyone create a virtual version of themselves or of a fictional character as easily as gamers create avatars; and training sessions that build virtual humans and real subjects into a shared storyline.
Cyrus Shahabi, director of the Integrated Media System Center at USC Viterbi, presented his group’s work on geo-immersion, which enriches maps with vast stores of data on traffic patterns or security video. The technology gives Shahabi an edge over Google directions, allowing him to project the shortest route through traffic based on the time of day. An iCampus application developed by Shahabi’s group can provide real-time location of campus shuttles — already available at USC — along with information on building activity and energy use, floor plans, security camera views and almost any other conceivable piece of information that can be linked to a location.
USC Annenberg Innovation Lab Director Jonathan Taplin described his team’s work in interpreting social media chatter in real time for the benefit of political junkies or movie buffs. Taplin’s group charted and analyzed 2,000 tweets per minute during the recent presidential debates, teaching the computer on the fly to distinguish earnest comments from sarcasm. A similar method allows the lab to track sentiment around movies close to their opening date and forecast their success or failure.
Other Innovation Lab projects include working with ICT and major broadcasters to assemble customized news programs narrated by a virtual human anchor, and creating crowd-sourced sites for crisis response that make it easier for residents of a stricken area to report problems and assist one another.
Participants broke into small groups on the second day to suggest new directions for the university to build and promote its digital media presence.
Fittingly for a digital media retreat, the discussions took place both in real forums and in the virtual space of backchannel, an online forum that allowed participants to post comments, engage one another and vote for the most relevant ideas.
Many suggestions focused on building the digital media community within the university through regular networking events, software tools for sharing resources and promotion of scholarship under the digital media umbrella. Some suggested a stronger focus on policy issues as a means of involving researchers from diverse fields on projects with broad societal impact.
One participant summed up the inherent tension between academia and digital media when he noted that universities are better at deep discussion than at the economy of thought characteristic of the social media universe.
After the retreat, Hall suggested that future work on building digital media scholarship at USC would need to focus on that core tension.
“How does the university become important and relevant in a field that changes daily? How do we embed some of that inside the university to keep us moving quickly while still maintaining the tradition of deep thought?” he asked.
Presentations, summaries of discussions and information on future events will be posted on the symposium’s website.