In a darkened section of UMD’s Herman Maril Gallery is an unexpected bounty of stimuli for the senses. Just noodle around (skillfully or not) on a keyboard whose keys are each linked via software to a projection; depending on what key is pressed, a colored shape appears on the walls around the instrument. Play a melody, and a rainbow of triangles, squares and trapezoids erupts.
Sean Preston’s MFA ’22 “Starlight Symphony” installation is one of the high-tech works on display in the “Immersive Media + Arts For All Showcase,” which runs April 2–8 in five buildings across campus. The inaugural event will highlight the University of Maryland’s Immersive Media Design (IMD) program, a major offered jointly by the College of Arts and Humanities (ARHU) and the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, through exhibits, workshops and panel discussions.
The showcase is a collaboration between IMD and the university’s Arts for All initiative, which brings together the arts, technology and social justice to spark innovation and new ways of thinking.
One goal of the showcase, said Roger Eastman, professor of the practice in computer science and director of the IMD program, is to introduce students, faculty and staff to what is, for many, an unfamiliar concept. “The most common question we get is, ‘What is immersive media?’” he said. “The objective of this showcase is to show off these technologies and their artistic potential.”
The 12 student projects on display “provide great examples of how our students are working at the cutting edge of immersive media, and how diverse (their work is) both in terms of subject matter and also the ways they’re using immersive design,” said Jonathan David Martin, IMD lecturer and program manager of the showcase.
“Making Space,” a multimedia piece by Emily Pan ’23, Lei Danielle Escobal ’24 and Casey Taira ’23, examines what it’s like to be Asian American in 2022 through video, dance, poetry and painting. In the film, Taira’s performance of a dance she choreographed is overlaid with Escobal’s writing and artwork created by Pan and Taira. Plant and tree imagery—including the ginkgo, the national tree of China—suggests the importance of one’s roots, while Escobal’s poems touch on the anxiety many Asian Americans feel living in a country with a history of colonialism. The COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying spike in hate crimes have also increased existing insecurities.
“When you see a lot of hate of your own culture, you take the chance to become (proud of) it,” Pan said. “That’s the main goal of our piece.”
Other student work invites visitors into a virtual-reality barren underground facility, a movie-like experience by turns comedic and terrifying. In another piece, visitors can spray paint their own graffiti via augmented reality, which overlays computerized visuals on the real world.
Additional programming includes a keynote speech from Gabo Arora of Johns Hopkins University’s Interactive Storytelling and Emerging Technologies program. Arora is the founder of the United Nations’ division for virtual and augmented reality initiatives. A panel including a number of faculty members will discuss how immersive media can make a positive social impact.
Patrick Warfield, professor of musicology and ARHU associate dean for arts and programming, noted that virtual and augmented reality can spark insights that only come from intimacy and proximity. Reading about a Syrian refugee camp and seeing it for yourself through virtual reality are two strikingly different experiences, he said.
Emerging media can “bring us so close to a face-to-face experience,” Warfield said. “We get to deeply experience the lives of others when we’re immersed in video and sound.”