On April 9th 2002 audiences in Ottawa and Kanata Ontario were connected with St. John’s Nfld. (Atlantic time plus one half-hour) in a large-scale interactive performance event. Carleton University’s new media and sonic design students presented creative projects in digital media and performance, and collaborated with musicians at Holy Heart High School in St. John’s for what is believed to be the first musical work composed for a multimedia broadband event. Of all the events in the series, April 9th was by far the most elaborate in terms of programming and technology.
The event was co-produced with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Virtual Classroom of the Communications Research Centre (CRC). Dr. Martin Brooks of the NRC’s Institute of Information Technology led the technical team. The CRC “BADLAB” was set up as the master site, with Carleton and St. John’s connecting to CRC as interactive sites. The event’s backbone was CA*net3 (http://www.canet3.net)7. The BADLAB, St. John’s and Carleton U were all connected to CA*Net3 via CRC GigaPOP8, Memorial University of Newfoundland GigaPOP, and ONet GigaPOP, respectively. Three high-end Pentium boxes running Linux utilized ISABEL, a conferencing application designed to create multi-media, multi-point distributed events. (See Figure 1)
Three workstations were set up at Carleton, with two running as separate interactive sites equipped with cameras to capture the audience and the performers, and the third to act as flowserver and stream the multimedia. This flowserver in turn connected to the CRC flowserver to compensate for limited bandwidth to the Architecture building. CA*net3 was accessed via the university ethernet whose bandwidth provided 10 Mbps of transfer, although actual transfer speeds were affected by general network activity on the campus at the time of the event. The single workstation in St. John’s would connect directly to the CRC flowserver.
A principal goal of this event was the merging of interactive cyberspace with a public performance forum. Large projections were utilized to create a sense of presence in the main audience venue at Carleton. Data projectors cast light on adjoining wall surfaces, offset by a 90-degree angle. (See Figures 2 and 3). ISABEL provides multiple programmable window sets within each projection. This, for example, made possible a kind of theatrical depiction of actors facing one another in a naturalistic conversational style. However, the scale ofthe projections produced a kind of cinematic amplification. Furthermore, roving cameras allowed me (as director and animator located across town at the CRC) to remotely “reach” into the locations and provoke participation from the audience. Indeed, the traditional distinction between audience and performers was deliberately blurred through a variety of engagement devices. The main venue on the Carleton campus was not an electronic presentation space. The closest ethernet port was several meters outside of the site in a small meeting room. The 10Mbps nominal connection speed at this port was seriously hampered by general network activity on the campus. This resulted in a recurring freeze effect to and from Carleton, although the CRC Kanata to St. John’s connection was unaffected. A fundamental challenge exists in locating a public performance facility that is directly wired to broadband. Such a facility would also require professional caliber presentation systems found in conventional theatre, stage or television production.
Two responses were particularly noteworthy. The usual shyness of being on-camera was very evident among the students; and, the default posture was to attempt eye contact via the videoconference. Participants tended to address projections rather than cameras, tending towards eye contact and facial images. Participants had to be occasionally directed away from the virtual facial image of a conversational partner and towards the camera lens. The makeshift venue also produced clumsiness with respect to more normal videoconference interaction. Separate monitor kiosks would allow an individual to 12 engage in cyberspatial conversations on a more human scale; with split video feeds generating the large-scale audience depiction. Issues relating to theatrical lighting, audience illumination and large-scale projections also require some kind of solution. The challenge in using Linux-based computers was the non-commercial, nonthoroughlytested nature of the operating system. Applications, drivers etc. were rife with incompatibilities, with devises such as the data projectors failing without warning.