Introducing UMD's MMad Lab

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A Mad, Mad, World

UMD's new MMad Lab
Morris Levy works with Ole Dack in UMD's new MMad Lab. Graduate student Logan Sales is in the background.

It's the culmination of the collective brain. A mashup of three colleges and five departments. A high-tech fueling of artistic wonder and groundbreaking research.

The Motion and Media Across Disciplines Lab, or MMad Lab, is nestled enroute to the Ven Den in a space that once humbly housed ROTC uniforms and a television studio. The MMad Lab is both an acronym and an anomaly in academia because it's a motion capture and a digital video studio. Few universities have bragging rights to something like this, but, says Bill Payne, dean of the School of Fine Arts, its exactly what's needed for innovation. "Work is changing; it's becoming interdisciplinary. We need programs that find new ways to educate our students for the future."

Science, social science, and art collide at the MMad Lab, in collaborations that weren't possible before its creation.

The Framework's Fruition

UMD's M-Mad Lab in action
Ole Dack's body in motion capture

The concept for the MMad Lab formed when the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) of the University of Minnesota posted a call for Research Infrastructure Investment Initiative awards in 2011.

Lisa Fitzpatrick, director of both the Viz Lab and the MMad Lab, gathered a team to write the grant. The authors crossed disciplines and crushed the proverbial silos - Bob Feyen and Pete Willemsen from the Swenson College of Science and Engineering, Tom Isbell and Joellyn Rock from the School of Fine Arts, and Morris Levy from the College of Education and Human Service Professions. They gathered around the table with a dream assignment, "Design a facility that will take your work to the next level." How UMD educated in ergonomics, computer science, theatre, digital arts, and biomechanics would change forever.

The grant was awarded and construction started, another impressive collaboration as Facilities Management crafted a state-of-the-art studio that features force plates and 12 Vicon motion capture cameras. The studio is a professional, three camera, live video facility with a switcher, director's box, sustainable LED lighting and light board, a sound booth, and chromakey (green screen) area.

The last components of the motion capture equipment were installed on August 20, 2014, and work quickly commenced. That work, at least for the first year, will center around research, but the MMad Lab business model includes revenue from rentals in the future.

Until then, the hot product is what it offers students.

Experiential Awesomeness

Logan Sales in UMD's M-Mad Lab
Logan Sales, a graduate assistant in the MMad Lab, setting up for data collection with the motion capture system

Logan Sales has a creative side, but he wasn't introduced to it until he entered the MMad Lab.

The computer science major spent his undergrad pushing code and feeling challenged by projects that were tough to visualize. Professor Pete Willemsen told him about work happening in the MMad Lab and his life's direction took a sharp turn into the Bohannon Hallway. "This changed my perspective of what I can possibly do. Rather than sitting in a cubical smashing my head against a keyboard all day, I can be working with cool tech all day."

Logan was there when it opened, ready to put the key in the ignition and get the MMad Lab motor running. Troubleshooting, answering tech questions, and helping professors with labs are part of his daily "to do" list. On the surface these tasks seem like typical grad students' work, but Logan is empowering research that couldn't happen at UMD without his expertise. In exchange, his education includes experience with equipment on par with Hollywood studios.

Lab Director Lisa Fitzpatrick says that Logan's experience exemplifies the new layer that MMad Lab adds to education at UMD. "The lab gives students a different application. For example, theatre students who understand how to run a light board come in here and add work with film to their knowledge."

The lush learning opportunities are accompanied by experts in each field, experts who are appreciative of the ease of teaching in the new facility. Tom Isbell and Morris Levy both talked about the pre-MMad Lab days of lugging cameras into classrooms and say they're glad to be educating in their new state-of-the-art surroundings.

The Data Dance

Ole Dack, LilaAnn White, and Morris Levy in the M-Mad Lab at UMD
Ole Dack, left, gets outfitted in the MMad Lab by Morris Levy and LilaAnn Coates White

Ole Dack is like a super hero who blocks awkwardness with a shield of professionalism. The musical theatre major and dance minor weathered having two professors adhere fist fulls of tiny reflective markers to his lycra leotard and beanie without breaking a sweat.

LilaAnn Coates White, who teaches dance, and Morris Levy, who teaches biomechanics, were the professors putting Ole through the ringer in the name of research. They watched the mechanics of Ole's demi-plié, relevé, sauté while Logan captured the movements using motion capture. "The MMad Lab gives us the ability to work across disciplines to answer common questions," explains Morris. He and LilaAnn will have Ole perform the exercise again at the end of the semester, and the motion capture lab allows them to quantify improvement. Instead of inference, they'll have data.

Where Aesthetics and Function Collide

Joellyn Rock and Alyce Peirce's M-Mad Lab project at UMD
Joellyn Rock and Alyce Pierce are teaching a digital Opera Fatale in the MMad Lab

Lab collaborators Morris Levy, Pete Willemsen, and Bob Feyen aren't in the School of Fine Arts where the MMad Lab is housed and their colleagues, Joellyn Rock and Tom Isbell, teach, but, "All five are creating," says SFA Dean Bill Payne. He describes the MMad Lab as a marriage of what's aesthetically pleasing and functional. "This is what's happening with technology. A computer scientist can do her work, but she needs to talk to designers and artists who will realize her vision in a virtual space."

The five researchers who collaborated in the MMad Lab's creation have realized just such a space, setting in motion the limitless potential of innovation.

More information

Story by Lori C. Melton, October 2014

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