So the other day, I got invited to the Cube in the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech. My mind is blown.
The Cube is a research laboratory and performance “space” that combines a series of futuristic technologies to build virtual environments. It is run by the Institute of Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), a multi-disciplinary center that is an inter-departmental, inter-college bridge between music, arts, and engineering.
Succinctly, it’s a five-story tall black-box theater in the round, where viewers stand in the middle of a cylindrical wall and view that wall through 3-D glasses while sound and music from 148 speakers is focused at them. I watched as geometric and nature-inspired figures danced before my eyes almost as if I could touch them. I could walk away from the virtual placement of one figure towards another. It was psychedelic!
One of the technologies at the Cube is optical motion capture. What that means is that a real being, human or animal, can be affixed with electronic “markers” that infrared motion cameras can watch and then digitally monitor their motion. When you walk, it can model your walk. It’s used in biomechanics and in video games to make them more realistic.
Imagine walking through a 3-D virtual space, something as mundane as walking through a building that hasn’t been constructed yet, but as exciting as walking on Mars, through an atomic supercollider, or through a simulated tornado. You can see yourself in pedagogical visualizations of sub-atomic particles flying around!
It also has spatial audio component. With directionality of sound at three stories of speakers, each person in the Cube can literally hear a different concert, reminiscent of the old proverb about every person seeing a different rainbow.
After my brief demonstration, I spoke with Eric Lyon, a music professor who is one of the lead researchers in the Cube.
He said, “I’m a faculty fellow, splitting my time between the music department and ICAT. I spend a lot of time developing audio systems, software, and composition to take this beast for a ride.”
“What do you expect from this beast?” I asked.
“We know that sound is fundamentally a three-dimensional phenomenon. Sound radiates out into space and each listener’s ear receives the sound waves in a different way. Even a single loudspeaker’s sound becomes a three-dimensional artifact in your ears. Here, we have a high-density array of speakers. We can control the sound field with precision. We can put sound wherever we want to create movement in space. The sound is sculptural! You can move around the room and hear something different depending on your location in the Cube. We encourage guests to do that. It’s a highly interactive listening process.”
“Other than this being really fun,” I asked innocently, “why?”
“This is an alternative media delivery space. These days, much of our performance arrives over the Internet: news, YouTube videos, television, sports. Home viewing is personal and non-immersive. Here in the Cube, we can provide a group, immersive experience that is completely engaging to the point that you don’t want to leave. It’s like being enveloped in a warm bath. It’s a social experience, as you share it with others. It’s not a stadium, it’s intimate.
“The idea of spatial sound exists on many levels. There is a concept called binaural sound, which recreates spatial sounds or music for headphone listening. Here at the Cube, we are concerned with music played through many loudspeakers. There is a lot of research into personal reception of sound. Psychoacoustics is the study of the human perception of sound. You can distinguish sound coming from in front of you compared to sound coming from behind. Technologies have evolved from monaural to stereo to commercial surround sound to higher-density surround. In the Cube, we have a high-density loudspeaker array. There are perhaps only 10 to 15 like this in the world. We expect more to come, but Tech is on the leading edge.
“We need to prove the validity of our ability to create theater experiences that don’t exist anywhere else. We have to prove it is intense enough and of sufficient artistic value and sufficiently distinguishable from what you can get in other spaces to justify it.
“Our research into audio is likely to intersect with some other creative trajectories. Here at Tech, we have brilliant engineering and scientific minds to collaborate with and accentuate the skills we have in music and the performing arts. The density of engineering and scientific expertise here makes it a sensible place to have a space like the Cube.
“I’ve been here three years. I love Blacksburg! Seriously, this is such a nice place. The people are the nicest in the world. The Cube is here at Virginia Tech because we Invent the future.”