Machines that Make Art: How Falmouth University Combines Creativity with Technology
For an ensemble’s first performance, it was impressive. But Falmouth University’s Online Orchestra had never even met face-to-face. Instead, young musicians performed together from their remote locations — flautists on the Isles of Scilly, strings in Truro and a brass band on the Lizard peninsula.
How did they do this? Through innovative new software developed by a team led by Falmouth University, designed to enable musicians in remote parts of the world to link up online for live performances, with a conductor based at the university.
It works because the technology has ironed out any time delay, and uses high-quality visuals and audio to connect the remote performers. This technology has also been used by music teachers to reach pupils in remote parts of the country, who’d otherwise miss out on lessons, and has the potential to be used more widely.
“What’s the point of research, if not to make people’s lives better?” asks Professor Michael Rofe, chair of the creative connected communities research theme at Falmouth, who was behind the Online Orchestra. And the university has many lines of research, which unite creatives with science and technology experts to bring a new perspective to society’s most pressing social and health problems. “We like to address real challenges — and draw on the powerful combination of skills,” says Rofe. “Think of it as a two-way creative bridge.”
Researchers are looking at some of public health’s greatest challenges, such as how to encourage people to become more active or choose more healthful foods, for instance. They’re also looking at tackling loneliness and isolation — one of the greatest causes of deteriorating health among the elderly. “It’s easy to think the challenges are purely medical,” says Anna Mankee-Williams, a senior research fellow in health and care at Falmouth. “But there are emotional and behavioral aspects too and we need to address these.”
She oversees a team drawing on creative and technical expertise to devise a fresh approach to these perennial health-and-well-being problems. “If you want to facilitate behavior change,” she says, “how can you capture the different ways of doing this, maximizing the creativity within us? That’s where people here who are artists, graphic designers, actors, writers and filmmakers — all with expertise around visual, audio and kinesthetic two-way communication — can approach our challenges differently.”
Could designers build on the success of the Pokémon Go craze of 2016 and encourage people to be more active? Why not harness the enticing nature of computer games, asks Professor Tanya Krzywinska, who, as director of Falmouth’s Games Academy, understands how gaming reward systems work.
The potential of “gamifying” physiotherapy, via apps with built-in feedback loops to encourage patients to complete their exercises correctly, is also being explored. “We all know that a lack of commitment to completing exercises is what can hold back someone’s recovery,” she says. “By hook or by crook, games can tap into how we operate.”
Krzywinska is currently developing a form of augmented reality, working with a variety of museums. One sees local Cornish attraction Porthcurno’s Telegraph Museum transformed by merging computer-generated imagery into a real setting — via a virtual reality-style headset. “It helps bring old technology alive for a younger audience.”
But use of this technology could extend well beyond the heritage sector into health and social care, she says. “We’re interested in how it could bring people together virtually, and help combat isolation and loneliness.”
Could it also help older people in remoter parts “see” their doctor more easily, in a virtual environment? “This has huge potential in this area,” says Mankee-Williams. “It’s about thinking creatively with existing technology, and this is why we need the input from creatives.”
Other projects move away from the traditional medical language and approach, and dig deeper into human motivation. If you come from a health or care perspective, almost inevitably we ask questions in a certain way and elicit a certain response — however, at times this simply does not help us understand why certain situations arise and why our interventions fail. Take for example poor uptake of the flu vaccination by health and care staff — the university has brought in creative professionals to use different approaches to tease out what motivates the decisions that staff make, and inform the response by the health-and-care sector.
And problem-solving methods used by creative industries and also technology and engineering — refining over and over until they perfect a solution — could be the most powerful approach to tackle social and health problems, Krzywinska believes.
Could computers ever become creative collaborators? That’s a question asked by Falmouth’s MetaMakers Institute. “Our aim is to hand over creative responsibility to software in arts and science projects, so that computers become our creative collaborators rather than mere tools,” says the institute blog. “We make things that make things.” By employing machine learning to develop software that can produce art or design games, academics hope to examine what artificial intelligence can bring to a community.
What all these projects have in common, says Rofe, is a strong focus on the end result, and a willingness to borrow methods of working from different disciplines to create a fresh approach. “These projects just aren’t possible if you put a hard wall between creativity, science and technology. You need a two-way flow — there’s a huge overlap. We’re operating in education, health care, advanced manufacturing, health and wellbeing; we want to solve real problems. It’s so crucial to collaborate.”