New UAB Program Trains Artist-Engineers for the 3-D Future

By Caperton Gillett

Bharat Soni, left, and Christopher Lowther are trying to build a bridge between their respective scientific and artistic disciplines in order to develop students "equally at home in the left and right brain."

Artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci never had access to three-dimensional modeling software or advanced computer simulation suites. That’s a shame, because with the help of a new UAB graduate program that bears his name, he might have managed to get his human-powered ornithopter and other futuristic visions off the ground.

The Leonardo Art & Engineering Certificate Program—affectionately known as “Leonardo” to developers Bharat Soni, Ph.D., and Christopher Lowther, marries the concrete aspects of engineering (Soni) with the creative aspects of art (Lowther). The program, which begins this fall, aims to mold students into well-rounded “Renaissance kind of people” capable of taking advantages of the many opportunities in a hot new field, Lowther says.

UAB faculty already have extensive expertise in designing and building immersive virtual-reality environments, says Soni, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the UAB School of Engineering. The school’s summer institute for high-school students has given faculty experience in teaching computer simulation techniques to the mathematically disinclined. And Lowther’s time-based media class in the Department of Art and Art History, which makes heavy use of 3-D modeling and animation software, presented a near-perfect bridge between the two disciplines.

The Student with Two Brains

The challenge has been building that bridge for students with very different thought processes, Soni says. Art students who enter the program will have to immerse themselves in a very technical and science-based environment, but engineering instructors will “hide the mathematics behind a curtain” as much as possible, Soni notes. Art faculty, meanwhile, will adapt their methods to “teach aesthetics and creativity to science students, who tend to be very concrete sometimes,” Lowther says. “We’re trying to foster the kind of scholar who has characteristics like Leonardo, who was equally at home in the left and right brain.”

Though scientists have been using interactive technology for some time, Soni says we have only scratched the surface of the ways technology will change everyday life, from entertainment to health care.

Both sides of the brain are crucial for making use of emerging 3-D and interactive technology, says Soni. Blockbuster movies such as Avatar have helped transform 3-D from a theme park gimmick to a home theater standby in a matter of a few years. “But in engineering, this is something we’ve been doing for some time,” Soni says. “High-dimensional visualizations and simulations are used in many different ways, to simulate the aerodynamics of jet airplanes, for example, or to model fluid dynamics. What are missing are some artistic characteristics.” And that’s where the artists come in. “We encourage creative thinking and creative solutions in addition to skills in aesthetics,” Lowther says.

Demand for 3-D content will skyrocket in the near future, Soni predicts. “Today, a 3-D TV costs $1,500 to $3,000,” he says. “In the next three or four years, it will cost maybe $300 or $400. Every household will have a 3-D TV. Kindergarten kids will be watching 3-D TV for education. This immersive environment is going to change the world.” Soni envisions a near future where shoppers can tour the Smithsonian from a booth at Birmingham’s Galleria mall and students will study from 3-D books using 3-D glasses. From there, it’s all about content, Soni says, which is where his students will come in.

Tech Specs

The 18 credit-hour Leonardo program is open to all graduate students, regardless of undergraduate major. It will comprise two classes each in engineering and art/art history, where students will learn about higher-dimension visualization, simulation, 3-D modeling, and sculpture. A six-hour interdisciplinary final project will involve knowledge, skills, and mentors from both sides and center around a subject of the student’s choosing. “This will have absolutely no limitation,” Soni says.

Virtual-reality technology is removing limitations on what people can experience in safe, controlled environments.

That freedom underscores the numerous applications of 3-D modeling and visualization in the near future. Lowther notes that a UAB dentistry student is currently studying sculpture to better model teeth. On a computer, in 3-D, “dentists could simulate chewing under different conditions,” Lowther says. He and Soni can fire off an impressive list of potential applications, including architects performing stress tests on building designs, physical therapy students exploring the mechanics of the human body, music students studying the behavior of the vocal cords, photographers presenting 360-degree views, and—of course—filmmakers working on the next Avatar.

“The most important thing is that the student is really motivated,” Lowther says. “They have to have some idea of what they want to do, because we’re not dictating content. The students will dictate how the program grows—they’re going to drive the bus.

"We’re changing paradigms,” Lowther adds. “If you think of yourself as an artist-engineer, you’re going to start having bigger ideas. And Leonardo epitomizes that.”

“And the name,” Soni says, “is so catchy.”