December 3, 2012
This week, if you take a stroll through the Haupt Garden, past the Sackler Gallery and into the Moongate Garden, you’ll come upon something you likely won’t see everyday: a 1500-year old intricately painted Buddhist cave from northwest China. Okay, but not really. In a remarkable marriage of the ancient and the high tech, the Sackler welcomes an innovative and precise 3D digital representation of one of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, also known as the Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in existence.
“There are over 600 caves in this escarpment, and they were painted over a period of about 1,000 years,” says Jeffrey Shaw, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong, who created the digital exhibition Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottes at Dunhuang, along with the Dunhuang Academy. “It is certainly one of the great art treasures of the world, and what we have here is a prototype for being able to explore the caves using digital data.”
Until you visit the exhibition, now shown outside China for the first time, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a gimmicky sideshow. But once you step inside the darkened tent and position the 3D glasses on your nose, the 360-degree virtual cave comes to life. It is utterly unlike the supposedly 3D experience you get, say, in a movie theater. Standing inside the tented chamber and seeing the richly detailed paintings and rock faces jut out at you from all sides, it really feels as though, if you reached out, you’d feel weathered millennial aged stone, rather than a smooth plastic screen. The digital cave, in short, is unnervingly lifelike.
Located at a natural oasis on the Silk Road—a crucial trade route linking China, western Asia and India from roughly the 2nd century BC through the 1300s—the Mogao cave complex was an ancient holy site where Buddhist monks practiced meditation. Over the centuries, they carved hundreds of chambers into the rock escarpment and filled them with intricate paintings. One cave of note, known as Bhaisajyaguru’s Eastern Paradise (now called Cave 220), is painted with seven figures known as medicine Buddhas, along with other traditional images such as incense burners, animals, dancers and musical instruments—and is now digitally represented as part of the new exhibition.
The virtual project began with painstaking work done by teams from the Dunhuang Academy, located at the site of the caves, in digitizing them over the course of several years. “They do a laser scanning of each of the caves, and they do ultra high resolution photography of the paintings,” Shaw says. The group has collected this data for a few dozen of the several hundred grottoes, but has only produced a fully-interactive virtual 3D exhibit for the one cave thus far.
The digital interface is controlled by a custom app installed on an iPad mini at the center of the room, which allows a tour guide to select from a menu of different options for displaying the work. It initially appears as a dark room, with a virtual flashlight’s beam bouncing around and illuminating small portions of it. Then, suddenly, the virtual house lights come up, and the six projectors and next-generation 3D technology provoke a wave of oohs and aahs from the tour groups crowding in to see it this week.
The fact that the entire experience is virtual gives visitors superpowers when exploring the cave. With a tour guide’s tap on the iPad, the group can suddenly move up to the ceiling, zoom in on a particular element with a massive magnifying glass or even animate elements of the paintings, bringing dancers or musical instruments out of the ancient painting to seemingly hover and perform in midair.
These capacities also allow visitors to experience the work in a pristine form unavailable at the actual cave. With another click, the seven medicine Buddhas are transformed, their dull pigments becoming vivid colors. “Here, the Buddhas have been virtually repainted to match the color quality of the original paintings,” Shaw says. “This is based on research by the Dunhuang Academy looking at what the original coloration would have been.”
One of the key motivations for the innovative project is conservation. “The Chinese want to reduce the amount of tours in the caves, because they are causing damage to them,” Shaw says. “The idea is that this will take some of the stress away from the touristic boom of interest in the caves themselves.” In addition to the touring exhibition, a permanent virtual cave will be installed at Dunhuang, along with the real ones, to accommodate the increasing level of cultural tourists without putting the grottoes at further risk.
“The Sackler is fast becoming a museum of the 21st century, taking the lead in adapting digital technology to a museum context,” said Julian Raby, the Director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries, at an event marking the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary last week. “The ‘Pure Land’ project exemplifies the exhibition experience of the future.”
Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottes at Dunhuang will be open through December 9th. Timed tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Sackler Pavilion. The show will also return in the spring of 2013 for a longer-term installation at the International Center Gallery.
November 8, 2012
Friday, November 9: Astride Two Ages: Technology and the Civil War Symposium
Something as simple as agricultural mechanization changed the course of military history because it allowed food production to support larger armies. Merritt Roe Smith, professor of the history of technology at MIT and author of the 2006 book Inventing America: A History of the United States, will lead off a symposium to discuss the relationship between technology and war in regards to the Civil War. On the one hand, losses in the war were still dictated by the lack of medical advances but there was also significant differences from past conflicts. The three-day symposium begins with Smith’s keynote address. Free but registration required. Get tickets here. 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. American History Museum.
Saturday, November 10: Star Party at Sky Meadows
Escape the city lights for some good old fashioned star gazing. Of course, since it’s a Smithsonian event, it might be a step above your childhood evenings spent on picnic blankets on the school football field. Chances are you didn’t have a high-powered telescope capable of spotting nearby planets and giving you an up close look at stars. Even if rain threatens to spoil the party, don’t fret. Backup plans for “junior astronomers” include a multimedia presentation. Take some time and look up to discover a world of wonders above you and be sure to dress warm. Free, $5 parking fee. 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sky Meadows State Park.
Sunday, November 11: Steinway Series: Peabody Conservatory
Phillip Kolker made his first appearance with a symphony at the tender age of 14 with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. Fast forward to today and the professional bassoon player is now chair of the department of orchestral instruments at the Peabody Conservatory. As part of the museum’s Steinway Series, which brings world class music to the American Art Museum, Kolker will perform a selection of American pieces for woodwinds and piano. Free. 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. American Art Museum.
October 24, 2012
No, Udvar-Hazy did not spring for a subscription to satellite radio and start listening to the all-Bruce Springsteen all-the-time station. It did, however, acquire a piece of communications history with the addition of a Sirius FM-4 broadcasting satellite.
That the technology, first conceptualized in the 1980s and launched in 2000, is now a piece of history just indicates how rapidly the industry is evolving as satellite technology becomes a greater part of every day life each year.
Satellite technologies only became a private enterprise a few decades ago. “One doesn’t even begin to think about the potential and beneficial use of communications satellites until the 1960s,” explains space history curator Martin Collins. NASA led the development with government programs but with the wave of privatization that peaked in the 70s and 80s, the industry went commercial. Largely used for broadcast television, satellite systems relied on what is called “geostationary orbit,” meaning the satellite orbited around the equator. Unfortunately for individuals dwelling in places distant from the equator, the signal could only reach so far.
At the time of its development, the SiriusXM satellite presented an innovative way to reach those consumers who had not been reached before by traditional satellite broadcasters. Using three satellites with a “highly inclined elliptical orbit,” SiriusXM was able to bring satellite radio to a greater geographic area. An ingenious solution, the strategy required more elaborate technologies. “When you use highly elliptical orbits,” says Collins, “you have to use more sophisticated approaches to tracking the satellite, to communicating with the satellite, to adjusting its orbit, to maintaining high performance, so you have these additional complicating factors.”
Over time, the industry caught up and can now produce single satellites that are capable of reaching distant consumers even while utilizing a geostationary orbit. “The new generation of their satellites are bigger, have more power, and use larger antennas to transmit their signals,” Collins explains.
There is one pretty large exception when it comes to phasing out highly elliptical orbits: Russia. The country began using the technology when it was still part of the Soviet Union and continues to use it because so much of its land mass is at high latitudes.
Developed under Robert Briskman, SiriusXM’s advances are part of what Collins says is an incredible shift away from ground-based communications. One of the greatest hallmarks of the early age of radio, begun more than 100 years ago, are the skeletal towers that transmit radio waves across the Earth’s surface. “One of our material cultural aspects of the 20th century is seeing these very tall towers around communities, whether it’s to broadcast television or radio,” says Collins. “With the Space Age, one in essence has the ability to elevate those towers above Earth and broadcast down and thus reach much greater geographic areas than one could do previously.”
Not only does the Sirius FM-4 satellite, which was built by Space Sytems/Loral for Sirius as a backup for the three-satellite system, represent a breakthrough in commercialized Space Age communications, it signals a broader shift that has remade our built environments and our daily experience.
“I think this move that sort of happened in the 80s and 90s to provide directly to individuals these kinds of satellite services, whether it was television or, in the case of Sirius, digital radio in your automobile or your home, were major, major transformations,” Collins says. Though he cites our rapacious appetite for entertainment, he says there are other notable integrations of the Space Age into daily life, from GPS in our cars to the very infrastructure of the business community.
August 31, 2012
When inventor Thomas Edison first began toying with the idea of improving upon moving image technology, he filed a note with the patents office in 1888, expressing his intent. He wrote that he hoped to invent a device that would, “do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear.” When he finally invented (with considerable help from his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson) and patented his single-camera device 115 years ago today, August 31, 1897, Edison was well on his way to launching the American film industry and even predicting America’s fascination with cats doing things on film (above).
Though Edison had received a visit from one of the early pioneers of moving pictures, Eadweard Muybridge, he turned down the opportunity to work with him, according to the Library of Congress and research from historians Charles Musser, David Robinson and Eileen Bowser. Sure, Muybridge had developed a way to use multiple cameras to capture a series of movements and then project is as a choppy but recognizable motion. But Edison didn’t think there was much potential in the multi-camera approach. Instead he labored (well, supervised others laboring) for three years to invent a single camera, the Kinetograph and single-user viewing device, the Kinetoscope, to record and view moving image in 1892.
Other than being a talented inventor, Edison also had the resources to attract other great talent, including Dickson, who moved his entire family from France to Edison’s research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Smithsonian curator Ryan Lintelman explained in a 2010 podcast, “By the 1880s Edison became known as “the Wizard of Menlo Park” because these inventions that he was coming up with were so transformative that it was as if magic was involved.”
It wasn’t long after the kinetoscope’s invention that he began producing movies under his own studio, nicknamed the Black Maria because the structure that housed it resembled a police patrol car. Ever the businessman, Edison oversaw the production of star-studded shorts to help popularize his invention, including films with Annie Oakley, acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Spanish dancer Carmencita. His subjects tended toward the sexy or the strong, proving the adage that sex sells. But one short titled The Boxing Cats (Professor Welton’s) also shows Edison’s ability to predict the insatiable market for watching cats do things, like fight each other in a tiny boxing ring.
“These first films they made for audiences were just short, simple subjects like women dancing or body builders flexing or a man sneezing or a famous couple kissing, and these early films have been called “the cinema of attractions” because they were shown as sort of these amazing glimpses of new technology rather then narrative plays on film,” explained Lintelman.
Unfortunately, the earliest surviving film from his studio is a little less titillating than the late 19th century equivalent of Brangelina kissing. Titled Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894, or Fred Ott’s Sneeze, the film simply shows an employee hamming it up for the camera with a dramatized sneeze.
But if a man sneezes and no one hears it, is it really a sneeze? That was the dilemma Edison tried to solve as competitors began eating into his profits. In an attempt to synch sound and image, Edison added piped-in music via a phonograph to accompany the film. But the sound and image remained separate and often out of step, making it a less than enticing solution. Meanwhile, the allure of projected films that could finally entertain more than one person at a time called to businessmen in the industry. Another inventor, Thomas Armat, beat Edison to the punch. But Edison negotiated and bought the invention, changing its name from the Phantoscope to the Vitascope.
Filming news events, performances and tourism videos proved a profitable mix. But when audiences began to tire of the novelty, Edison turned to fiction-filmmaker Edwin S. Porter to create entertaining movies to be featured in the new storefront theaters known as nickelodeons.
As the popularity of these diverting films took off, Edison scrambled to own as much of the market as possible and protect his many related patents. After squaring off with a resistant competitor, Edison eventually negotiated a deal in 1908, according to the Library of Congress, that joined his company with Biograph and established a monopoly. His rise to the top, however, was short lived. Better technologies and more intriguing narratives were coming out of competing studios and though Edison continued to try to synch sound and image, his solutions were still imperfect. In 1918, Edison sold the studio and retired from his film career.
Though Hollywood is now synonymous with movie stars and big-name producers, it was actually Edison’s Black Maria in West Orange–the world’s first movie studio–that started the American film industry. Lintelman joked in his 2010 interview, “Most people can’t think of a place farther from Hollywood than New Jersey, right?” But Lintelman continued, “The American film industry was concentrated in that New Jersey, New York area from the 1890s until the 1920s. That’s when Hollywood became the movie capital of the world. Prior to that time, the most important factors were to be close to those manufacturing centers and investors in the markets. ”
Writing in an email, Lintelman, says, however, that he finds more similarities between online video culture than with Hollywood’s feature-length films. “It was a direct and democratic form of visual expression.” Viewers simply had to offer up their nickel to enjoy a brief diversion. Without audio or dialogue, the silent films could reach anyone, regardless of language. Though the subject matter could include spectacular news events or travel shots, most dealt with the daily experiences of man. “The filmmakers found humor in technological changes, transportation innovation, shifting demographics and social mores and the experience of city life,” writes Lintelman.
And viewers watched voraciously. After enjoying a kinetoscope film, people would mingle in the parlor space, discussing their favorites. With a variety of quick options in one place, viewers could create their own movie lineup and experience. “When you think about it,” Lintelman adds, “this is how we use the internet to view visual content today!”
July 10, 2012
Television penetrated the average American life with astonishing speed. At the end of World War II, just a half percent of U.S. households had a TV set; by 1962, that number had increased to 90 percent. But no matter how many TVs we bought and broadcasting stations we constructed, the reach of broadcast signals over long distances was still limited by a basic physical problem: the curvature of the earth.
“The TV signal, which is a radio wave signal, travels in straight lines,” says Martin Collins, a curator at the Air and Space Museum. “So if you’re having to overcome the curvature of the earth, signals can only go so far before they need to be picked up by an antenna and repeated.”
All this changed with the launch of a rocket in Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, exactly 50 years ago, today. The rocket carried the Telstar communications satellite, the first ever spacecraft that served to actively relay communications signals between distant points on earth. “In essence, it meant putting a relay station high up in orbit, instead of on the ground,” Collins says. ”From a technical perspective, the satellite was a nifty solution to a basic problem of physics.”
The spacecraft allowed broadcasting stations in both the U.S. and Europe to send signals up into space, bounce them off the satellite, and have them received across the Atlantic nearly instantaneously, revolutionizing mass communications between the continents. The device could also be used for phone calls and even faxes. To celebrate the achievement, authorities conducted an international demonstration of Telstar’s capabilities. “There was an exchange of programs—first from the United States to Europe, and then from Europe to the U.S.” says Collins. The American broadcast included a press conference with President Kennedy, a baseball game and images of famous places such as the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.
Telstar, an experimental satellite, successfully relayed signals for just under a year before various technical problems forced it offline. But it played a crucial role in shaping the development of subsequent satellites and helping us understand how we could conduct communications through space. The satellite employed solid state technology, provided information about how electronics functioned in the radiation of the Van Allen Belt and assisted in developing techniques to establish contact between ground antennae and spacecraft.
The launch was also tremendously valuable for an American psyche rattled by the early Soviet dominance of space during the Cold War. “Telstar was an event that signaled U.S. achievement in an area that the Soviets themselves had not done,” Collins says. “The perception was that the Soviets were ahead in human space flight, and they were creating new accomplishments faster than the U.S., but Telstar represented an aspect of space flight that the U.S. was clearly first in.” The fact that the satellite was developed primarily by AT&T, a private firm, further served to demonstrate the power of private industry, as compared to the U.S.S.R.’s state-run model.
To celebrate the golden anniversary of the achievement, the Air and Space Museum—which is home to a backup duplicate of Telstar, produced along with the actual satellite launched—is hosting a day of special events on Thursday, July 12. A live satellite connection will be established with the Telecommunications Museum in Pleumeur-Bodou, France, which was the site of the original French ground antenna. The broadcast will be followed by a special symposium of space historians and industry experts, including Martin Collins, and will feature original footage from the 1962 broadcast. The event is open to the public, and will be available as a live webcast for those outside Washington.
In addition to the museum’s special events, there’s yet another way to celebrate Telstar’s legacy: by looking to the skies. Although the satellite was ultimately disabled by radiation in 1963, it has remained in orbit ever since, reliably circling the earth every 2.5 hours. Modern satellites have outstripped Telstar’s capabilities by several orders of magnitude, but the relic lives on as a physical reminder of our first successful foray into space communications.