Reflections of a Now (Somewhat) Technologically Literate MA Student

14 Apr



  Our classes’ interactive exhibit showcase has come and gone, and I’m pleased to report that my conducting project performed admirably.  Although some of the accelerometer programming could have been improved to handle a wider range of gestures, the visual interface I had designed as a last-minute addition seemed to help many of the users maintain the correct tempo. Perhaps the most encouraging part of the showcase, however, was the fact that everyone who attempted my conducting challenge couldn’t stop grinning as they tried to maintain a steady rhythm.

  I have to say that I’m quite pleased with the final result of my project. At the beginning of this semester I was petrified at the idea of designing an interactive exhibit on a programming platform that I had never even heard of, let alone knew how to operate. Having said that, I learned several important lessons for my work, the most valuable of which I’ve included below.


#1: Max tutorials are your friends

  Max might not be one of the most intuitive programming languages in the world, but the program more than makes up for it with its comprehensive database of tutorials. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I became stuck on a particular part of my project without any guesses as to how to fix the problem. In those instances, Max’s comprehensive list of tutorials would not only offer up suggestions as to how to proceed, but would also provide interactive examples of certain objects that would have been otherwise impossible to understand to a technologically illiterate person like me.


#2 Don’t leave things until the last minute

  I have a nasty habit of procrastination when it comes to long-term projects such as these. Often I’ll have to remind myself to keep on track in order to avoid any sort of last minute scramble. Organization, however, is key when a project such as this one involves several different digital elements. Max is the kind of program in which the tiniest typo can mean the difference between a project that works perfectly and one that fails miserably. There were a number of times during the semester where if I hadn’t planned ahead properly I would have found myself short on time. Proper digital programming requires patience and perseverance. Very rarely will digital projects like these flow smoothly from beginning to end without any sort of unexpected trouble. Preparing for these kinds of speed bumps makes the process much less stressful.


#3 Don’t be afraid to ask for help

  While a healthy amount of planning never hurts, sometimes it is important to recognize when you’re in over your head. Asking a trusted source for advice is always a good option. In my case, both my colleagues and my professor provided invaluable help when I was stuck on some of the more difficult phases of the build. It was encouraging, however, to see that my work was not as far off as I had thought in many cases. After struggling with smoothing some of the accelerometer data, our professor offered up an alternative solution that I later smacked myself in the head for not thinking up myself.


  Although there were certainly improvements that could be made to subsequent iterations of my project, I have to say that I was pleased with the final result. With some more time I would have liked to have smoothed out the accelerometer data even further, as well as included a volume scale that would have increased or decreased the volume of the music depending on the aggressiveness of the user’s gestures. Nevertheless, this project has allowed me to pick up a number of new skills that I can hopefully put to use as the demand for interactivity in museums and other historical institutions continues to grow.

More Digital History!

31 Mar


Only a little more than 24 hours to go until our class’ digital exhibit presentations and things are going well sine the last time I checked in. I’ve managed to successfully build all three sections that I discussed in my previous post, resulting in a project that is almost complete. That is not to say, however, that there haven’t been a few hurdles along the way. Working with any kind of technology that is completely new to any student is bound to cause some frustration, and goodness knows I’ve had my fair share already.

One of my first issues was figuring out how to get MIDI files to play correctly on Max. The aforementioned program has a number of objects that are designed to play MIDI files. What I didn’t realize at the time (technological dinosaur that I am) was that there are several different types of MIDI files, and that it is very difficult to figure out which kind you have until you try it out with the various Max objects meant to play them. After I’d figured out the difference between Track 0 and Track 1 MIDI files, the actual process of making the file play was pretty straightforward.

Probably the most difficult part of the build was figuring out how to smooth out the accelerometer data in such a way that the information passed to the rest of the programming would be consistent and replicable. Before I even made it to dealing with the accelerometer I had already experienced problems with my BPM controller running far too quickly. Needless to say, most people can’t conduct a song at 500bpm without their arms flying off in the process (or something close to it). In order to try and slow down the speed of the music, I decided to only use the Z axis on the accelerometer to deliver a bang to the BPM meter, as opposed to having the accelerometer deliver a bang anytime it was moved in all four directions. This decision also served to keep the programming a bit less messy, which is always a good idea when dealing with coding. After I had shaped a multislider in such a way that it would deliver consistent data, I connected a simple Boolean statement to the Z axis of the accelerometer. This statement ensures that if the accelerometer makes a down stroke then a one appears on a number object. At all other times, however, the same number object is told to read zero in order to slow down the BPM meter.

Although I still have a couple bugs to sort out, most notably the manner in which the accelerometer will be connected to a switch for the BPM meter, I’m confident that things will be in working order by Wednesday. Check back in a couple days for the finished product!

Exhibit Design Progress Report

26 Mar


So I think it’s about time I gave everyone a bit of an update on what I’ve been working on over the last several weeks. Other school commitments have a habit of getting in your way when it comes to blogging, so this latest entry is long overdue.

My latest project for our interactive exhibit design class is inspired by the Mendelssohn Museum in Leipzig, Germany. The museum main feature is a bank of speakers meant to symbolize the different sections of an orchestra. These speakers are then connected to a computer running a mix of both Max and Ableton Live software, as well as an infrared motion camera. All of this hardware is housed in a stand that is made to look like a conductor’s podium. As museum-goers stand on the podium, they are able to conduct a selection of orchestra pieces. The infrared camera picks up the movement of the visitor’s arms, and the Max software converts this information into beats-per-minute (BPM). From there this information is given to Ableton Live, which routs the appropriate sounds to the various speakers. The end result is an interactive electronic orchestra that changes tempo depending on the speed of the conductor’s motions.

Needless to say, this kind of complete design is somewhat beyond my level of technical ability. After toying with the idea of using an infrared sensor, I settled instead on sewing a 3-axis accelerometer into a glove. As well as being far cheaper than the infrared sensor, the accelerometer’s data output is much easier to control and shape to tune the rest of the software’s responses accordingly. Since I don’t currently have access to Ableton Live, I’ll simply be using Max in order to program the rest of the software. Thus far I’ve divided the project into three different stages and have been working on each separately. The first Max patcher will receive and filter the accelerometer data, while the second patcher will convert an impulse into BPMs. The third and final patcher will simply play the required MIDI files.

While each of these patchers is fairly simply on its own, the difficult part will be figuring out how to get all three to work together. I’ve already managed to get the first two patchers working, but figuring out how to get a multi-track MIDI to play on Max is proving difficult. After figuring that out I plan to move on to filtering the accelerometer data to provide clear signals to the rest of the software. I have to admit that this kind of software design intimidates me enormously, but I think that I’ll be able to take a decent stab at it with enough perseverance.

Gadgets, Gizmos, and Games

1 Feb


  Hello again everyone! After a (somewhat) relaxing Christmas break it’s back to the grindstone again for all of us here at Western’s Public History program. The New Year has brought a number of new challenges, foremost among which is this semester’s interactive exhibit design class. Having had very little experience with computer programming in the past, I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about taking the course. Luckily, many of my fears seem to have been unfounded. Our latest exercise involved the use of both the Max programming language and several Makey Makeys. The latter of these two tools are essentially miniature arduino controllers that can be programmed to accept certain inputs. After a quick introductory lesson in using a Makey Makey, we were turned loose in groups to see what we could create. By the end of the class my group mate Laura and I had managed to create a working computer controller out of cardboard, tinfoil, and a couple hinges from a Makedo kit. This controller was then wired up to my laptop through the use of a Makey Makey, enabling the user to play an online version of the classic game Breakout.

  Despite the seemingly fragile nature of our build, Laura and I were quite shocked at how well it performed. Not only did the setup allow players to control the game, but it also allowed them to direct the onscreen ball with startling accuracy. Not bad from a controller that relies on electrical impulses from a couple rolled up balls of tinfoil connected to alligator clips.

  All of this playing around with gadgets might seem a bit frivolous in a serious academic program, but it serves an important purpose. Many of these basic design skills can be applied to the design of historical exhibits. A button that senses when a controller is pressed can just as easily be programmed to trigger a light that will illuminate a historical object in a display case. I’m very much looking forward to being able to bring these skills to whatever historical institution I intern at during the upcoming summer.

Photography and History

10 Dec

In my last post I discussed some of the re-photography work that has been done by the Toronto-based photographer Harry Enchin. Having been inspired by his photographs, I decided to try my own brand of re-photography in my latest digital history assignment. I encourage all of you to take a look at the result of this effort, Re-photography Western. Although the website is still relatively new, the experience of working on a genuinely digital historical project has taught me quite a lot about some of the novel possibilities for outreach that this medium offers.

After deciding to concentrate my initial efforts around the original Natural Science Building on Western University’s campus, one of my first jobs for my project was to go about collecting as many photographs of the building as possible. In a rather serendipitous move, my first day spent searching for potential photos led me straight to the grand-reopening ceremonies for the Natural Science Building’s (now the Physics and Astronomy Building) recent renovations. Fortunately, the building’s renovations had generated quite a bit of interest in the history of the physics department here at Western, resulting in my meeting several members of the physics department who worked on producing the accompanying video that was shown at the event. After explaining my project to each of them individually, I was surprised at the positivity of their responses. This got me thinking, what exactly was it about re-photography that seemed to engender such an enthusiastic response from so many people?

Perhaps these responses have to do with the nature of photographic imagery itself. Academic historians often seem to hold up the published text as the pinnacle of historical research and presentation. While there is certainly much to be said for published textual history, it can be difficult for many people to engage with the medium due to its inaccessible nature. Historical writing, when written well, is capable of capturing the public’s interest. Such writing is difficult, however, and many members of the public consider historical texts to be far too boring and pedantic.

Photography, unlike many other forms of presentation, seems to draw from a universal appeal. I can’t recall ever having had a single person tell me that they didn’t enjoy looking at historical photos, whereas many of those same people would likely have balked in the face of more serious academic texts. From a public historian’s perspective this approachable nature can be used to capture the public’s attention and promote widespread historical engagement. The intrigue generated by a historical photo can often be used by the public historian to draw his or her audience into a more nuanced historical discussion. It is exactly this effect that I hope to achieve in my website, where I have attempted to combine the accessibility and dynamic nature of photography with detailed academic research. It seems that when discussing historical photography the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” really does hold true after all.

Re-Photography Revival

4 Dec

Harry Enchin

In today’s fast-paced world we often don’t bother to stop and think about the past. Having grown up in the middle of downtown Toronto I’ve become used to hearing buzz-words such as “urban growth” and “gentrification” to describe the nearly constant process of development that seems to be occurring in just about every urban neighbourhood these days. Businesses fold in a matter of months and buildings seemingly disappear overnight, only to be replaced by new construction projects. As a student living away from home for the past few years it seems as if I have to re-learn my neighbourhood with every visit to my family.

This constant state of change raises some interesting questions. If our surrounding urban landscapes can change this quickly, then what did they look like ten, twenty, or even fifty years ago? The photograph included in this post is the work of a Toronto photographer named Harry Enchin. What began as a weekend hobby for Harry quickly attracted quite a lot of critical praise, and his work has now been featured twice at the Contact Photography Festival here in Toronto. Enchin’s work combines archival photographs with his own photos taken from the same angle and location as the original. As a historian, I love that Enchin has found a way to make his audience think about the ways in which their predecessors interacted with the very same space that they now occupy.

By now you must be thinking, “Gee Oliver, I wish I could make those sorts of pictures out of my family’s photo collection” (OK, maybe you weren’t, but a guy can dream). Well don’t worry, because there is an online service called Historypin that allows you to do just that! Although you likely won’t be able to achieve the same level of detail that appears in Harry Enchin’s photos, a relatively inexperienced user can nevertheless become surprisingly successful in a relatively short amount of time.

Historypin works by georeferencing your old photographs onto an interactive world-map. Once you’ve created an account you merely have to line up the two photos and voila! Not only does Historypin allow you to upload your own photos, but it also allows you to view the photos of other users around the world. Just be warned, it’s addictive! When I first started using Historypin I found myself searching random locations across the world just to find out how other physical landscapes have changed over time. The program has certainly changed the way that I think about physical space and the historical possibilities of presenting these spaces in new ways. Try some pinning of your own and you might find the same thing.

MOOCs: Changing the Way We Teach History

19 Nov

 The other day our digital history class was lucky enough to be able to watch a live feed of the sixth annual Canada’s History Forum, held at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. This year’s forum was titled, “Is Technology Altering our History?” and featured a number of historians who work on the cutting edge of integrating technology with historical practices.

 Although all of the speakers who presented throughout the day should be commended, it was the final session that was by far the most unique and interesting to me. During this session Stéphane Lévesque from the University of Ottawa and the University of Prince Edward Island’s Dave Cormier discussed the manner in which technology is changing the way we teach history.

 As a masters student in a history-related program it’s sometimes easy to forget that you represent a relatively small section of the general population. As a result, I feel that I occasionally fail to see the forest through the trees when it comes to using technology to teach history. I’m fortunate enough to have access to an entire suite of technological aids at Western, ranging from GIS software to book scanners, which enable me to further my knowledge about historical topics in different ways. With all of this access, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the average person interacts with both history and technology in a much different way.

 One particularly interesting way of using technology to bring history to the public is through the use of what Dave Cormier describes as Massive Open Online Courses. These types of online classes, termed MOOCs for short, can often grow to include thousands of participants and help to open up classrooms to a much wider audience With this enormous popularity comes a number of interesting challenges and benefits. While it will never be possible to give someone the same amount of personal attention as a small class, the participants in MOOCs are able to connect with other like-minded individuals on a scale that the traditional classroom simply cannot match. These types of online classes can be based around a broad variety of topics, ranging from various interests to personal development. According to Cormier, however, the true potential of MOOCs lies in their ability to create online communities that enable people to connect with others around the world.

 The creation of these types of communities can have tremendous benefits for both said community itself and for historians. If we as public historians can use MOOCs to successfully mobilize those members of the public who have an interest in history into an effective community, then the possibilities for communication and the transfer of information are impressive indeed. My own beliefs about technology and its role in historical education echo those of Dave Cormier’s. The sharing of knowledge is a vital part of the educational experience, and if technological advancements like MOOCs help to encourage community building around historical education, then sign me up for the next class!

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