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magazine home > archives > spring 2005 > features

Since opening its doors just a little more than a year ago, the Center for Multimedia Arts is dazzling the community with a diverse array of innovative projects for clients that include St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the National Civil Rights Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Pixel Perfect
by Jamie Peters

A stream of flesh-and-blood concerns pumps through the miles of digital circuitry at the Center for Multimedia Arts.

Sure, Michael Schmidt, the center's director, is more than happy to tick off all the high-tech gadgets at his fingertips during a conversation at his operation's headquarters in the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis.

And considering where the CMA is housed, an inventory of cool things seems as obligatory as the scene in every James Bond movie when the character Q shows off all the slick gizmos he has invented for the secret agent.

But above all, it's how the technology, which ranges from high-powered Mac computers, digital video cameras and editing programs, is put to use that really matters. In this case, the CMA is juggling a number of projects that hum with social relevance. Several efforts focus on two particularly pressing issues in Memphis: health care and education.

"We're most interested in using that collaboration to do something of social value," says Schmidt, an associate professor who teaches graphic design.

Although the CMA began embarking on its first official project just a little more than a year ago, more than 30 professors, professional staff and community members have worked on the various CMA initiatives to date. Health care is such a hot spot that the U of M recently a launched a sister center to the CMA, the Experiential Design Center, whose "major thrust" will revolve around interior design projects in the medical-care field, says Dr. Nikki Feilner, director of the EDC and assistant professor in interior design. Including a partnership with the Center for the Study of Rhetoric and Applied Communication at the U of M, Schmidt says the three areas form a triumvirate that enables that the U of M to meet many "health-care-related demands."

New lines of communication

  Michael Schmidt

As CMA director, Michael Schmidt has overseen projects undertaken by more than 30 professors, professional staff and community members.

One of the CMA's most ambitious projects centers on a new pathway of communication among patients, their parents and the staff at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. A group of researchers from the CMA and the Center for the Study of Rhetoric and Applied Communication at the U of M is working with St. Jude physicians to devise an Internet-based tool that will enable parents and patients to understand the cancer-treatment processes more thoroughly.

The researchers, who are primarily working with Dr. Raymond Barfield, a St. Jude faculty member specializing in stem cell transplant, are honing in on the informed consent process that the legal guardians of patients must undertake before the children receive treatment. "Ray's patients are the ones who have gone through prior cancer treatments that didn't work," says Schmidt. "Now we're at the point where if this doesn't work, they are likely going to die, particularly the babies. They have a high mortality rate. So it becomes even more critical in that phase that we effectively communicate, that we effectively enhance comprehension so that the parents feel they've really made the right decision." The project will work in tandem with willing patients involved in Barfield's research, which includes haploidentical stem cell transplant protocols for solid tumors that use the parents' patient as the donors, and a treatment involving a new antibody that specifically targets neuroblastoma tumors.

The current consent forms are fashioned in language that aims to be comprehensible to sixth graders, says Barfield. But that's a tough goal when the forms are based upon complex, sometimes experimental "phase one" treatment procedures, as is the case with much of Barfield's work. Add in the fact that the parents signing off on the forms are already bombarded with the innumerable life-altering stresses that materialize when their child's life is at stake. "Initially the purpose behind introducing these very complete consent documents was to fully inform, but at some point the amount of information that you have to get across in an attempt to truly inform becomes . . . a point of diminishing returns where more information is actually less information because there is just no way to process it all," says Barfield.

Because so many treatment schedules contain multiple layers of information sometimes a parent feels he or she was not fully informed when in fact the data was right there in the initial document. "What we'd like to see come out of this is that the patients and the parents feel much more a part of their treatment," says Dr. Susan Popham, an assistant professor of English working on the project. "That they're not just signing on the dotted line in order to let the doctor jump through the hoop.

That they are in fact making a fully informed and fully ethical decision." The Web-based tool aims to fill this need by providing a resource that parents can continually access to learn more about their child's ailment.

The project team has submitted a proposal to obtain an $83,000 grant from the Greenwall Foundation for the multifaceted initiative, which will serve the interests of multiple audiences, including patients, parents, physicians and nurses. "In order to design one that's going to be effective and actually be useful and not just a piece of abandoned technojunk five or 10 years down the road, you have to understand how it fits into the process as it's being handled now," says Dr. Loel Kim, an assistant professor of English involved in the project.

The approach eventually could accommodate elements such as chat rooms for parents to correspond with each other, along with the use of digital cameras so patients and their families can document their experiences, says Kim. These features potentially could help establish a tighter sense of community among families who are going through similar crises. More important, the opportunity exists for patients to create a digital document that may help others, which could lift the spirits of all parties during what often can be a debilitating process. "I think that human beings really want to be able to feel like their lives are meaningful," says Kim.

Hand in hand

When the National Civil Rights Museum expanded by opening its Legacy building in 2002, the organization's leaders didn't expect that the area's supporting technology would short circuit within two years. When looking for a solution, museum officials approached the CMA in the spring of 2004 on what would become the center's first official project.

Installations at the National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum's technological problems provided the CMA with its first official project in spring 2004. The effort went so well that the CMA is working with the museum on a five-year technology plan.

The museum needed a team who could quickly resolve the issues that were plaguing its interactive touch screens as well as the enterprise business systems. Within 24 hours of contacting the Management Information Systems department at the U of M, Schmidt and other CMA members formed an interdisciplinary group of professors prepared to tackle the problem. The work demanded a wide range of skill sets. The team had to replace interactive touch screens, install televisions and write the code for various systems. "There were just numerous problems we had to deal with, from the virtual to the physical," says Schmidt. In one instance, the touch screens were contained in heavy steel houses that became "ovens and were literally cooking." He estimates that the work saved the museum $35,000 in short-term servings by extending the life of the equipment.

As its first official project, the CMA was off to an auspicious beginning, establishing a solid reputation in the community. "That is a huge resource for me to have somebody locally to come over and look at things and help us make good decisions -- decisions that will not only allow us to make a quick fix but one that will also last," says Venita Steppe Smith, director of operations for the museum.

In fact, the CMA currently is working with the museum on a five-year technology plan and several different grant applications for various projects. "It's very much going to deal with what the museum wants to be and how it wants to keep pace and get ahead of the curve," says Schmidt.

Middle school in 3-D

Even the least jaded sixth-grader likely would roll his eyes at another learning program on a computer. But what if the feature enabled you to study and rotate artifacts excavated from your native soil -- the Mid-South -- from every possible angle with just a mouse and a keyboard?

The CMA is working with Hope Technologies, a local point of business for Arius3D, a Toronto firm that was established by the same people who own IMAX technology, on a project that will do this very thing. The effort centers on a laser-based technology that can scan and replicate objects ranging in size from a large statue to a microscopic specimen.

The proposed application for the technology has already generated significant interest among top government officials. Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Bill Frist sent a letter of support to the Department of Education for the project, which will focus on creating a visual database for two collections at Memphis' Pink Palace Family of Museums: Native American pottery and fossils from the Mid-South. The work will involve creating a digital catalogue of state-of-the-art, high-resolution visual scans of the artifacts.

The Chucalissa Archaeological Museum and Memphis City Schools also are partners in the effort, and numerous teams from the U of M are collaborating on the project, including members from computer science, instructional design technology, graphic design, English, engineering, archaeology and the information technology departments. The unified goal is not only to develop a new mode of learning that will blow students' minds, but also one that will serve as an effective teaching tool. "You might remember something cool for a little while, but what we really want to do is create greater efficacy," says Schmidt. "And that has to be the bar by what we measure what we've done because if this is not more effective than existing curricula, then we've failed."

Let the rhythm hit 'em

The CMA had to learn to tap its feet to a different beat when dealing with the challenges it faced in a project with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. One area, a hall full of record singles, featured displays of many of the singles and albums created under the label. But something was missing. "You're able to see these artifacts but yet there was a big gap between what you were able to hear," says Lucas Charles, an assistant professor who teaches graphic design. So basically, a music fan could look at the single of Rufus Thomas' "Do the Funky Chicken" but couldn't listen to it. "People would always say, 'Man, it'd be cool to be able to hear this song,'" says museum director Nashid Madyun.

  Lucas Charles

Lucas Charles, an assistant professor who teaches graphic design, helped create a digital jukebox for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis that enables music fans to listen to a catalogue of 210 songs from 57 artists while viewing photos and biographical information.

As a result, Stax officials and Charles started to talk about a digital jukebox, using pieces of equipment from a former karaoke installation that was eliminated because of a change in the museum's layout. What they came up with was a player that would hold 57 different artists and 210 songs. Users of the jukebox click on the artist and song they want to hear and listen to the tune through a pair of headphones. The jukebox also has video capability, allowing music lovers to watch photo montages and read short biographies of their favorite artists. While working on the project, Charles' personal knowledge of soul music grew to the levels that would almost make music critics envious. "For me moving to Memphis two years ago, I didn't really have a knowledge of Memphis music," says Charles. "It was really interesting for me to create this thing because then I started to learn about the history, and also it's so interesting to see all these photographs because of the changes that the artists went through in their careers. Then, I couldn't even pick out B.B. King. But now I could pick out B.B. King when he was 30, 40 or 50."

That project spurred an opportunity to partner with the Stax Music Academy, which is adjacent to the museum. The academy plans to start a charter school this fall for sixth-grade age students who are passionate about pursuing an education and career in music. Charles is spearheading the installation of a server-based computer system that will support about 30 laptops in a lab area in the school, along with e-mail accounts and a shared file system through a centralized network.

Charles and Stax officials envision the partnership as a long-term one that will involve constant maintenance and evolution of the system in line with the academy's plans to expand to a high school curriculum. "We're not just a place that drops off everything," Charles says. "We're in it for the long haul."

In a digital nutshell, the same could be said for the wide-ranging mission of the CMA.


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