Digital Lyceum

My colleague, John Craig Freeman, and I recently received funding from the NEH (as part of their digital humanities start-up program) to work on a project entitled “The Digital Lyceum.” This project explores the virtual architecture of the live humanities event. In other words, we’re interested in identifying how back-channels (from virtual worlds to information streams) can enhance the learning and experiential capacity of a live lecture or performance. The project started from a sense of personal angst and excitement about the use of back-channels at conferences. All too often, back-channels digress into little more than a gimmicky distraction. We began to wonder what of these technologies add to the experience and what does not. We began to talk about how events need to be choreographed, orchestrated, and designed to produce a user experience that is in fact more interesting, more productive than the unmediated version. What information streams are appropriate for what events? And how can we design experiences where the technology (however novel) does not interfere with the intended outcome of the event? Ultimately, we hope to produce software that is configurable enough to accommodate the choreographing of mixed reality events.

In the short term, we have promised the NEH that we will research how this work is currently taking place and produce a website that includes best practices and ideas. We hope to communicate with those who are building tools and those who are implementing those tools in innovative ways. We hope to provide a resource for anyone interested in staging mixed reality events. In addition to that resource, we will continue experimenting with set-up and implementation during live events including UpGrade Boston and a Mixed Reality symposium to take place at Emerson College in February. As part of this work, we will begin to identify directions for future production and study.

In choreographing technology into live events, we hope to produce more than virtual bling. We see this work as an intervention into existing cultural trends where users are consistently multi-tasking with their phones, laptops, PDAs, etc. Walking down the street, sitting in a classroom, attending a lecture – these are currently contexts for talking on the phone, IMing with friends, and browsing Facebook. So how are these streams channeled into productive activity for the specific purposes? And how can these streams function as the raw material for cultural memory? Now thoughts, in the form of chat, can be connected to events, as part of the historical record. That alone holds tremendous potential.

We just set up a separate blog for this project. While I’ll continue to post some thoughts here that are directly relevant to the subject of this blog, the day-to-day research will be documented at