The 2021-2022 Harvard Discovery Series built on the strong slate of talks from 2020-21. While campus COVID restrictions gradually loosened throughout the year, we focused on running a consistently virtual Discovery Series, which allowed us to broaden our community to feature new speakers and reach attendees hailing from near and far, from Boston to Brazil. The virtual format also allowed us to record most of the talks. With these strengths in mind, we are excited to announce that in the fall the Discovery Series will return as an in-person speaker series, with presentations once again taking place on Harvard’s campus. We look forward to seeing you in September!
Over the past year, the Discovery Series brought seven excellent presentations to the Harvard digital scholarship community. Here are some highlights from those presentations.
Figures in the Sky Initiative
The Figures in the Sky Initiative is a digital public history project under development at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’ Wolbach Library. Rebecca Charbonneau, the project’s co-leader, explained how integrating humanities research into STEM institutions can aid the development of novel solutions to cultural and historically rooted challenges in contemporary science. “Stories are central to our project, just as they are central to astronomical heritage,” said Charbonneau, as she described the conflict between teams trying to build a new telescope on Mauna Kea and native Hawaiians, who consider the mountain a sacred cosmological site and burial ground. FITSI catalogs the legends and myths of 28 different “sky cultures,” from Macedonian to Maori. Many of these cultures share constellations, but their stories are all their own.
Living in Data
To live in data is to be incessantly extracted from; to be classified and categorized, statisti-fied, sold and surveilled. Our data is mined and processed for profit, power and political gain. Our clicks and likes and footsteps feed new digital methods of control. Jer Thorp, one of the world’s foremost data artists and a leading voice for the ethical use of big data, explored these themes in this wide-ranging talk, drawing on his 2021 book, Living In Data. Jer critiqued the ways that “public data” is often withheld from the public via gatekeeping mechanisms, instead advocating for active use of that data. Jer says that the best public data projects, like “Of All The People In All The World” by Stan’s Cafe, “stick with you like a burr”: visceral, haunting, and eternally relevant.
Opportunities Behind Bars
In the final Discovery Series talk for 2021, Jenn Halen, a Harvard College Fellow in Government, discussed how virtual reality can be used to connect undergrad students from Harvard with mentees in a juvenile detention center. “Opportunities Behind Bars” is a collaboratory course between the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and the Department of Government. In 2020, COVID-19 restrictions forced institutions to deliver services remotely. Halen tested Meta’s Oculus Go, Quest, and Quest 2 headsets, which provided increasing levels of precision and tactile interaction; this was greatly appreciated by students in this “time of extreme isolation.” VR allowed incarcerated individuals access to educational experiences they would otherwise be unable to participate in, such as a dissection. Halen’s pedagogical approach emphasized “liberation through education,” encouraging her students and mentees to engage in a “horizontal effort” to benefit both parties.
Emotion in Data Visualization
Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas, leaders of Google’s PAIR (People + AI Research) Initiative and new Harvard SEAS faculty, kicked off the first event in the spring 2022 Discovery Series with their talk “Emotion in Data Visualization.”
An Update on Virtual Harvard
Education at Harvard is increasingly virtual and online, but we are still working to deliver a high-quality pedagogical product to our students regardless of whether they are accessing education residentially or remotely. Rus Gant, a multimedia artist, XR Architect, computer engineer, educator, and visual futurist, directs the Virtual Harvard Project from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Rus presented his update from the Visualization Lab. Virtual Harvard is a “digital twin” which encompasses and recreates much of the physicality which is lost when moving away from the classroom and lab to online learning. Harvard has been developing 3D campus maps for years, but Virtual Harvard goes beyond this by using laser scanners to create hundreds of photorealistic VR models which are then rendered in Matterport. They are also using LIDAR and drone photogrammetry to scan the outside of Harvard buildings and monuments, such as the John Harvard statue. Rus also shared how Virtual Harvard allows interactions that couldn’t exist in real life using Virtual Production Stages, a sort of “super green screen ability” which mixes live footage with computer graphics, such as Matterport models or Unreal Engine scenes with Sketchfab models. Virtual classrooms, developed in collaboration with the libraries, bring developments from the XR Lab to the classroom using VR headsets, which support classes focusing on topics from French language learning to the Giza Plateau to molecular construction in a virtual chemistry lab. Rus finished by talking about a potential future where 3D avatars are used heavily and blends with Virtual Harvard and other virtual environments and metaverses.
From Portable Studio to Digital Archive: Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks
The Harvard Art Museums was recently gifted more than seventy sketchbooks by artist Otto Piene (1928–2014), a pioneer in multimedia and technology-based art. Piene was long interested in optical perception and kinetic forces, resulting in a body of work that emphasizes collaboration and the intersections of art, science, and nature in a “truly interdisciplinary manner.” In this talk, postdoctoral curatorial fellow Lauren Hanson and museum data specialist Jeff Steward shared their digital experimentations with Piene’s collection. HAM technicians spent over 1,400 hours photographing over 9,000 sketchbook pages, and Hanson worked to capture metadata about the sketchbooks which is then available via the Art Museum’s public website, data API, and in various digital collections and exhibits. Hanson and Steward collaborated on the digital exhibition of Piene’s sketchbooks, “Processing the Page;” it previewed in March 2022 and will be launched in full in July in the Art Museum’s Lightbox gallery. Museum visitors can use a smartphone controller to filter, sort, scan, and play with Piene’s sketchbooks – actions driven by both human- and AI-generated metadata.
Placing Virtual Reality: Japan’s Alternative VR History
In the final Discovery Series presentation of the 2021-2022 series, Paul Roquet (MIT) tracks the emergence of virtual reality during the “VR boom” of the early 1990s, exploring how the cultural understanding of VR transformed as it crossed the Pacific and was taken up in Japan. In contrast to American VR, with a history of military usage, techno-utopianism, and an emphasis on “individual renewal coupled to encountering a spatial frontier,” Japanese VR projects are “frequently positioned not to transcend, but more as a retreat from the existing world.” Roquet’s history of VR reminds us that despite the current global VR revival, the technology has experienced numerous waves and recessions, yet through it all Japan’s fascination with VR has remained steadfast.