Three schools on two continents and visual industry professionals are working with Texas A&M University on a three-year research project to determine how technology promotes creativity among collaborators in different locations.
Funded by a $293,000 National Science Foundation grant, the study will mimic visual effects and animation industry workflow procedures as students in different locations tackle projects requiring visual and technical problem-solving.
In large visual effects companies, it is standard practice for groups in separate locations to work toward a common goal, explains Tim McLaughlin, head of the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M and principal investigator for the project.
“A company might say it’s going to build models in Bangalore, India, do the animation in Los Angeles and complete the final rendering in Vancouver,” McLaughlin says. “They organize the project so even though the work is distributed, the outcome still looks like one cohesive piece of work.”
Study participants include visualization students from Texas A&M, including those studying abroad at the Akademie für Internationale Bildung in Bonn, Germany. They will be collaborating with students at the University of Texas at Dallas and with high school students at The Design and Technology Academy in San Antonio.
“This project seeks to develop collaborative skills among participants while providing a more profound understanding of specific influences on technical and visual creativity,” McLaughlin explains.
Visual industry professionals from companies serving on the visualization department’s professional advisory board will help stage the studio projects and guide the use of technology, while Hersh Waxman, director of the State of Texas Education Research Center, will assist in assessing the study results.
“The design of this study reflects a project management issue faced by major companies in the visual effects, animation and electronic game industries, where high levels of technical and visual creativity are required from a global workforce,” says McLaughlin.
In the first year of the study, students will be assigned a task and a goal, with the work separated into components.
“For example, the group at Texas A&M might do the modeling, a group at UT-Dallas the animation and the group in Germany the final lighting and rendering,” says McLaughlin.
In the study’s second year, McLaughlin notes that students at each location will collaboratively tackle one task at a time, such as modeling, then animation and then rendering, while interacting asynchronously via e-mail and file exchanges.
“In year three we’ll use the same team structure, but we’ll change the way they connect with one another,” he continues. “We’ll use technology to create synchronous immersive connections whenever possible.”
Due to the rapid development of technology, just what form that immersive collaboration will take is yet to be determined.
“It’ll be whatever our system and the technology will allow at the time,” McLaughlin says. “That’s why this project has a very tight connection to the industry advisory group. Their role is to keep us advised in what they’re doing, and more importantly, what they hope to be doing several years from now.”
It takes these companies some time to incorporate technology, he adds, but they generally know where the technology is headed.
“They’ll be looking at it and they’ll have an idea of how they want their creative teams to collaborate on the near horizon,” McLaughlin says. “Hopefully, we’re on a scale small enough that we can jump in now and discover in the studio classroom what level of connectivity inhibits creativity and what promotes it.”