Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Conversations with Maria Palazzi - a commercial animator, decoder of choreographic thinking, user of metaphors for communications, polymath

As, a pioneer in commercial applications of computer animation, Maria Palazzi, the director of Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD) at The Ohio State University, shares her views on merging arts, humanities, design and technology to further understand creative and other thinking processes. Prior to her academic appointments, Maria was a senior animator and director for Cranston/Csuri Productions. Her work has been nominated for awards from Clio, and screened at ACM SIGGRAPH and international film festivals. She is an unrelenting champion for increasing participation of young women in computer animation.

This interview with Maria is the fifth in our series about learning, design, games, social media, crowd-sourcing and work processes.

RD> The first question for you is, are you a gamer?
MP> No I am not. Never was into Board games either.

RD> How do you learn?
MP> I learn in a multimodal way. I definitely learn by doing. I also learn by reflection and I have to internalize, process and reprocess it. I read and probably that’s the best way for me to take in information. I draw and I map to make sense of complexity of ideas (perhaps my Graphics background) – that in turn allows me to process the information that I read and heard. Then lately I finish the learning process by reflecting and by communicating and reinforcing my understanding using metaphors. This last part has become more important to me, as I intensively work with multidisciplinary creative teams.

RD> True – the act of rhetoric is to create an image that someone can relate to and makes the content more relevant to the audience. Recently I read a blog written by Jill Konrath – a leading Sales effectiveness trainer interviewing Anne Miller (an author of the book Metaphorically Selling) – who talked about metaphors in sales communications. Tell me more.
MP> Absolutely, it can be used in any form of communication and understanding of complex transactions and processes. The more images you and I bring to the discussion and use the metaphors to communicate, the better the learning reinforcement is for both you and me.

RD> Do you think younger generation especially under-40 are learning differently?
MP> Well! I read. I don’t think younger generation takes their information by long-form reading that much as I do. Their information intake comes from different sources in shorter spans. I am not judging it, but the only issue I see while teaching students is how they find information. Because my Mom was a librarian and I worked in a library, I was taught very early on how to use a library, my reflexes automatically knew what keywords would lead to faster and more relevant results to find content. When Google and other search routines came along, that transition just made the results be delivered faster to me (from printed cards to my screen). Nowadays, that library visits seldom occur and how to do a keyword search is not a skill that is intuitive to them, , Sometimes working with my students, with all their different devices, they have a tough time finding scholarly information. I find that they struggle to determine what keyword they should put in that makes their search provide efficient and relevant search results. This I think makes their start of their learning longer. Once the information is received, processing the information and complexity of ideas—irrespective of age, I think there is no difference. Then it diverges again during reflection and communication, but that’s more of a style preference. These days, irrespective of age, use metaphors and more non-linear way of communicating simply because interactive learning and media tools make it faster to communicate complex ideas. Of course you must realize I have an inherent bias in my observations because I deal with Arts and Design people.

RD> What is your definition of immersive learning?
MP> It really depends on whether it is a verb or a noun. Sometimes it is how a student or a learner immerses in the content in order to learn and sometimes we create (like in ACCAD) an immersive learning environment where the learners come in to experience. I personally think that creating immersive environments or simulation-lab environments cannot only teaches someone the complex ideas but provide new understanding of old ideas. This is about immersing students in knowledge – then learning happens.

RD> If I understand what you are saying, in the technology world, that “immersing students in knowledge” is what we call “user experience”.
MP> Exactly, after the experience, the learning happens. So! As a teacher, “immersion” becomes a verb. Teaching them how to immerse and then create artifacts where they learn while immersed and then send them to the next level to learn more. Technology enables the building of artifacts. This encourages someone to become lifelong learners.
RD> This reminds me of the movie “Inception”, where you assimilate by building the artifacts and then play out the concepts and then redo for better. Have you seen it?
MP> No! I have not.
RD> You will love it – and try to see it on the big screen.

RD> How do you envision using games/simulations to teach people to use information better and also learn to understand complexity?
MP> A good example of this, is a project called Synchronous Objects that we did at ACCAD. It is about “Choreographic Thinking” based on a dance by choreographer William Forsythe. The dance is called, “One Flat Thing reproduced”. Norah Zuniga Shaw, a professor from the Dance department and I worked on this project to understand how his (William Forsythe’s) choreographic thinking works. It was not meant to be a form of dance documentation, but instead a visual way to unlock the ideas about how Forsythe’s complex systems of organization. The materials we created—animations, graphics, interactive tools—are investigatory as we wanted to probe Bill’s choreographic thinking and they are exploratory as we wanted to discover what we could see in the dance, and how we could visualize those interpretations.
To make Synchronous Objects, we assembled an extraordinary group of graduate students who are animators, designers, dancers, and scientists – as well as an outstanding group of faculty and researchers at Ohio State who brought their expertise the project.

RD> What is your definition of “Choreographic thinking”?
MP> A choreographer’s (in this case William Forsythe) strategies for planning time-based and space-based events and group relationships, and then presenting it in a way, a choreographer presents it to their audience.
RD> This just blows my mind. This is so similar when we think of designing complex simulations of a work process or interactions where eventually there is an output to the audience i.e. the consumer or customer in my world. Tell me more.
MP> When I first looked at it, as a graphics and visual person I could not even understand the complexity and kept asking myself, what am I looking at? I am an animator, I am a visual thinking person, and I never could seem to understand what I am looking at in the dance. I realized soon that what we typically expect a linear experience with a story-line with a beginning and an end like the NutCracker. It was not linear.
He was using this concept called “Counterpoint”, when he was arranging the piece on stage. I have been exposed to the concept of “Counterpoint” from jazz music. My parents had exposed me to lot of Jazz in my childhood. So! What finally helped me, is taking that Jazz metaphor to understand and learn about this non-linear complex narrative or as you would say “immersive simulation”.
We had to then deconstruct that thinking. We had to break it down to little parts of information bits and objects. We had to re-map using many different folks from various disciplines to build relationships among those objects. Then use information visualization skills to reconstruct sets of narrative, while keeping his ideas intact. We had to also determine how different learners would come to the site. By different learners I mean learning styles that different users would be comfortable to assimilate their own metaphors. For example, some are visual learners , some learn by word analogies etc. So! The site presents multiple ways into the material, it is very non-linear. We mined the data from the dance to define each object’s parametric range and what and how they can interact and what relationships can be had.
We have 20 objects – some of those are truly abstract – i.e. you would not assume by looking at the object that it came from that dance. But what the objects do is challenge you to answer the question – “what else might this dance look like?”
RD> To me this latter part of the exercise is applying “Group Theory” and “Topology” from my past life of dabbling in Mathematics. The objects can have certain properties like reflexive, associative and transitive as examples and then as a group or a topologic construct they can behave in certain way and you get more properties out of it that you can visualize. Is the mined data from the project shared with others? Incredible! Still having goose bumps.
MP> [Laughs] To create a continual experience for the audience, we have it available for interactive play at http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/
We share the objects – of course this is not the only interpretation but it is our interpretation. We had statisticians, anthropologists, geographers, mathematics, neuroscientists, designers, authors – lots of disciplines play with the objects and come up with organizational strategies. We shared with them, how we discovered the objects but then had intense discussions of the relationship of the objects and how they relate to the objects and led them create new prototypes.
RD> This project clearly shows how technology, art, humanities and design can be brought together to create an immersive learning environment to do innovation on a very complex process such as creativity of a dance. Of course, this validates how we can use this project thinking to deconstruct complex human interaction and work processes and recreate new innovations in thinking and work processes.

RD> You know – I can go on talking about this. But I have to let you go soon. I wanted to ask my last set of questions. You have led the path here locally in Columbus to increase women participation in technology -- what trends have you seen in 1990's versus 2000's? How do we increase women participation to join the game/graphics production? Are there gender-based differences in design thinking?
MP> We have a summer program at ACCAD, where we bring young women from 8th and 9th grade schools to participate in workshops. These selected women work with women mentors and use “problem-solving skills and collaborative learning to create digital animation”. We have been doing this now for ten years. There are no gender-based differences in output but how they approach a design is very different from what it was ten years ago. These young women understand what media is and understand what story is. They have already played with Photoshop in sixth grade. So! These young women are much more well-versed on the tools and technology and spend more time in the critical thinking or design side and come up with projects that involve complex thinking and production through a collaborative effort. Lately I have invited the same group back a few times to work on more complex projects and they have amazing retention, and I can see the changes. It then makes computer animation careers much more of a reality for them. The other interesting thing I have noticed is that these children finally see that there is a continuum of careers between an engineer and an artist. They no longer feel that they need to pick one. They want to operate in their comfort zone.

RD> Thank you Maria. It has been really interesting to chat with you. Let us continue our discussions.
MP> Let‘s do so -- because I think we have some opportunities to collaborate.