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Interactive design blooms in NYU hallways

Students in university's Interactive Telecommunications Program take on challenge of creating innovative multimedia designs. Photos: A study in interactivity

This is the first in an occasional series of articles profiling interactive-media programs at academic institutions in the United States.

NEW YORK--If you've never seen a wooden mirror, you should.

Hanging somewhat inconspicuously on a wall in the foyer of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, faculty member Daniel Rozin's creation is a study in what's possible when you throw away common notions about what's possible. Like the idea that wood couldn't possibly be the basis for a mirror.

The mirror, which is comprised of dozens of small wooden slats--like Scrabble tiles--on spinners, has a tiny camera hidden in the middle, and when someone stands in front of it, a computer calculates which slats to rotate, and how far. Then, with the help of some crafty lighting from above, it presents a rudimentary reflection of the subject.

This is what goes on at ITP--one of the most celebrated multimedia design graduate programs in the country--or at least a glimpse of it. In fact, on the fourth floor of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where ITP is jammed into a space not much larger than a midsize grocery store, you can almost see the proverbial lightbulb simultaneously going on over the heads of the dozens of students sitting around desks in the hallways, typing away on laptops, tinkering with various half-built gadgets and generally trying to make the next great interactive application.

Take Botanicalls, for example. This application, by students Rebecca Bray, Kate Hartman, Kati London and Rob Faludi, is designed to help people keep their plants happy. It works by building a wireless device into the plant that knows when it needs watering and then calls its owner, informing her so. It also calls back when it is satisfied to say thank you.

At ITP, students--a little more than 100 in each of the classes in the two-year program--go full bore, often working long into the night, day after day after day, in order to earn a master's degree in Professional Studies. But it's really much more about learning alongside some of the brightest classmates around, and maybe starting a company in the process, than it is about earning the credential.

"No one goes there for the degree," said Dennis Crowley, an ITP graduate who went on to co-found Dodgeball, a popular mobile application that helps people find their friends in urban areas. "People go there to spend two years there."

To start, ITP is an unusual physical specimen. It has just a few classrooms and a few faculty members, and most of the real work gets done in the hallways.

Students take a few required courses in the first semester and then are more or less left to design their own curriculum. They must do a thesis project in the last semester, and all present some of their work in the twice-a-year ITP "Show," an open-to-the-public gallery of the latest and greatest projects to come out of the program.

Talk to anyone involved in ITP, and they'll tell you that the strength of the program is in the wide range of its students' backgrounds and interests. Some may be programming geniuses, while others may not even be able to make their alarm clock work. Yet by putting everyone together in a highly collaborative environment, the students find ways to collectively find solutions to interesting problems.

Graduates go on to many careers, but one recent trend has been to work on collaborative multimedia street games. Several of the organizers of the Come out and Play festival, which was held last September in New York, were ITP graduates or faculty members.

One major theme at ITP is "sustainability." That has many meanings and applications, of course, including Botanicalls. Another theme is "assistive technology," an example of which is a project by Christian Croft and Kate Hartman that plays off the growing trend of children's shoes with built-in wheels.

Croft and Hartman built a pair of shoes with wheels attached to a small generator so that the sneakers become a small power source as they are worn.

Red Burns, ITP's department chair, pointed out another favorite project from the assistive program, a wheelchair with a DJ mixing board built into the wheels, so that a DJ can spin records while sitting in the chair.

To Clay Shirky, a member of the faculty, the thing that ITP does best is help students find answers to problems with no obvious answers.

"You want them to leave with the ability to think through these things," Shirky said. "When they get out into the real world, (questions with obvious answers aren't what) people are asking because they're not useful."

That approach also extends to the school itself. Its curriculum evolves from year to year not by the whims of the existing faculty but because the program brings back students to teach as adjuncts. And they want to bring new pieces to the program that weren't there for them as students.

"I (teach) the classes that I wanted to take," said Crowley, who joined the faculty after graduation, "and that's happened over and over and over."

Shirky agreed.

"The common thing we hear from students after they graduate is that they get a hold of the list of classes, and they say, 'OK, I want to go here,'" Shirky said. "In a way, (ITP) becomes most like the students who just left."

Still, there is no shortage of inspiration for students while they are in the program.

In fact, Shirky said he thinks of the program as being "the center for the study of the recently possible."

"Students say, 'Oh, there's this new (technological) capability,'" Shirky said, '"but nobody has pressed it into service yet.'"

So they do it themselves.

One project in the works is from a team led by first-year student Adam Simon. Called "People Rank," or "Social Bomb," it is a system designed to automatically measure social reputation and popularity through a game.

Essentially, players wear a small gadget, and then the technology measures people's reputations and popularity by how they interact with others and to whom they talk. The more they talk to people, the more their score goes up, and vice versa. But the system can also detract a user's points based on the popularity of the person he is talking to.

Ultimately, the chance to work on such projects in an atmosphere where everyone is helping each other out and where learning, not competition, is the goal makes ITP a top choice for many applicants.

Shirky said that while ITP competes for students with programs like the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the video game program at the University of Southern California, it often ends up being the first choice for those who have more broad interests and is not focused on a single kind of technology.

"What makes it great is that everyone is learning something new," second-year student Michael Ang said. "So everyone is a beginner."

Ang added that ITP is structured so that students have to be able to take initiative and work quickly, skills that will suit them well in the professional world.

"You get into this mode," Ang said, "where you're coming up with all these ideas, and you can whip out a quick prototype."

And in the end, while students must pack their class schedules during their four semesters at ITP, both faculty and students alike say it's really about the work that gets done in the hallways.

"It's half art school and half product development summer camp," Crowley said. "You take 200 people and stick them in that tiny space for two years, and good things are going to come out of it."