The Practical Futurist: The Harvard Of Interactive

Every May there's a two-night show in New York City, packed with visitors, that looks like a cross between a science fair, an art gallery, and a science-fiction movie. It's New York University's semi-annual show for graduate students in its Interactive Telecommunications Program, housed in the same building as the film school that launched folks like Scorsese and Spike Lee. Whether you're a recruiter for Microsoft, an adventurous art critic, or just someone who wants a glimpse of the future, the ITP show is a must-see.

The NYU ITP program and MIT's Media Lab are arguably the Harvard and Yale of the interactive world. But MIT's Media Lab has fallen on hard times; even Wired magazine--once the Media Lab's number-one cheerleader-sniped in this month's issue that "once rock stars, the Media Lab crew has become a geezer rock band--Lynyrd Skynyrd with pocket protectors." The Interactive Telecommunications Program, on the other hand, continues to thrive, providing what is unquestionably the most unique educational experience available in interactive design.

Much of that success has to do with the tutelage of Red Burns, likely one of the few people in the field who actually qualifies for the shopworn "visionary" label. Her background in alternative media stretches back to the early 70s, the days of public-access cable television and the Sony Portapak, the first portable video camera. And her long-term view of the interactive world thus informs the curriculum: students here work not only with keyboards, but with their hands and the real world. You're as likely to see a student project that involves, oh, live cactuses or Barbie dolls as one that's dependent on the intricacies of Javascript.

A visit to ITP a few weeks before this month's show found a dozen students hard at work in the Physical Computing Lab, creating final projects. At one bench a student--who had previously worked as a videogame project manager--was building a mechanical flower that when approached, opened automatically and released a fragrance. Another pair of students was casting rubber apples that would be implanted with electronics and then used by hospital patients as biofeedback devices to teach control of blood pressure and stress. Nearby a former philosophy student, who had previously worked for UNICEF, was building an elaborate drum device that triggered a smoke machine.

The Physical Computing Lab, equipped with table saws and belt sanders and drill presses, looks more like shop class than a spawning ground for interactive media, and that's the way Red Burns likes it. When ITP started in 1979, with a class of 20, the students actually had to build their own computers. "Partly," says Burns, "to overcome their fears of computers." That's not a problem with today's students; most are already computer literate and when they need a computer for a project, more often than not it's all on a single chip. What these students need instead is a connection to the real world of physical materials.

Programming is, of course, part of the curriculum, but says Burns, "it's not about technology, it's about what technology does. We're not an art school, and we're not a computer science school." Students are encouraged to define "interactivity" as broadly as possible, and it's clear that there are few limitations. At one show I saw a project that appeared to primarily consist of small living plants that the student had passed around to friends to raise for short periods of time, apparently to test some theory of networking. And failure is not a problem. "When you make something that doesn't work," Burns said, "that's fabulous."

At this point ITP might begin to sound like the sort of free-form touchy-feely do-your-own-thing institution that gave alternative education a bad name in the '70s and '80s. But it's clearly not: the classes are often rigorous, with names like "The Future of the Infrastructure" or "Creative Microcomputing" or "Information Architecture." (Although other classes sound like distinct departures: "The Poetics of Virtual Space," for example, or "Contagious Media.") And the competition for entry is intense, with about 230 students admitted from four times that number of applicants; tuition for most students is over $20,000 a year. The school requires an undergraduate degree and Burns prefers that students be out of school five years, but past that, much is determined on the basis on an application essay and the student's background. "We aim for diversity," says Burns; a recent class had students ranging from a pediatrician and a journalist to a lawyer, a filmmaker and a performance artist.

But what really distinguishes the work at ITP is the number of projects that remain in one's mind, even several years after a show. I still recall, for example, one student who created a video fireworks display on a plasma screen, meant to hang in a store window. Passersby on the sidewalk were instructed to dial a number on their cell phones and then by pressing buttons, they could control the fireworks show as they watched. Other classic pieces are still displayed in the entrance to the school's loft-like, plank-floored offices. One is "Wooden Mirror", a 6-foot-tall "mirror" made of 830 small squares of wood, each powered by a tiny motor. When you stand in front of the mirror a video camera picks up your image and tilts the corresponding squares of wood to create what appears to be your "reflection." Across from the Wooden Mirror is "Copper Urchin," a copper ball about the size of a basketball, extruding long drooping wires like some kind of metallic sea creature. Run your hands across the wires, and the somewhat-threatening ball suddenly creates lovely sounds.

Recruiters from companies like Microsoft and Intel, as well as ad agencies and media companies, are regular ITP visitors and Burns has alumni well-placed through the interactive industry; the program itself now has an international reputation. But for all her experience--or more likely, because of it--Burns is cautious about predicting the future. "I see technology beginning to disappear," she says, "but what continues to be important is how computers can help people. At ITP, we just have to redefine ourselves all the time."