DEV Studio Merges Technology With the Humanities

News subtitle

The studio offers a home for interdisciplinary work with extended reality.

Varun Wescott '25, covered in reflective sensors
Neukom/ITC XR Fellow Claire Preston watches as XR for the Humanities Fellow Varun Wescott ’25, covered in reflective sensors, tests out the motion capture machine in the DEV Studio. The sensors interact with 26 cameras positioned around the perimeter of the room. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

A spacious room tucked in the basement of North Fairbanks has morphed over the years, serving at times as a movie theater, offices, and a production studio. Now, it’s home to the Data Experiences and Visualizations Studio, which helps Dartmouth community members integrate cutting-edge extended reality technologies with interdisciplinary research, teaching, and learning.

The DEV Studio, which started out with a few pieces of equipment in Berry Library not long before the pandemic, is part of Information, Technology, and Consulting.

“It’s a place where people can go ask interdisciplinary questions and really play with the technology in interesting ways,” says director John Bell.

Accessible technology

With a built-in balcony, large open floor space, and mobile furniture—the turquoise and green upholstered chairs and tables are on wheels—the studio is easily transformed to meet the research and classroom needs of students and faculty members.

Classes have come in to test VR software, make presentations, and use the motion capture system, technology used to create animation, like in the movie Avatar. And students and faculty members can also borrow equipment and find help brainstorming applications of augmented or virtual reality for research projects.

Bell, who is also manager of Dartmouth Research Computing’s Digital Humanities Program and a lecturer in the Department of Film and Media Studies, explains that virtual reality uses digital constructs designed to completely override the senses.

“That might mean wearing headphones and a headset that block out someone’s views of the physical environment they’re in,” he says.

Varun Wescott '25
Varun Wescott ’25, covered in reflective sensors, tests out the motion capture machine in the DEV Studio. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

Augmented reality, however, integrates digital constructs with the physical world.

“So, if you held up your phone and pointed it at a table, you would see the table and also the dragon or other virtual item someone inserted on top of it,” Bell says.

Extended reality, meanwhile, can refer to any of the technologies that can extend how we see the world around us.

And because XR technology often comes with a steep learning curve, the studio also offers training and referrals to related classes and campus resources.

“You don’t want people to get really excited about an idea and then come in and realize, ‘Oh wait, I don’t know how to do this,’” Bell says. Acquiring those skills in advance enables them “to come in and actually execute their projects.”

Innovation and collaboration

For those who are interested in securing funding for XR projects, the studio helps with grant applications. Bell and Mark Williams, an associate professor of film and media studies and director of the Media Ecology Project, recently received a Mellon Foundation Public Knowledge Grant to analyze actor poses, using machine learning software. Their analysis of U.S. film and television texts from 1895 to the 1970s will explore how acting, cinematography, and technology have evolved over time. The research is part of a broader examination of federal rules allowing selected text and data mining of copyrighted materials. The results of the project will be used in an argument to the Library of Congress to clarify when copyrighted material can be used for computational analysis in an academic context.

The DEV Studio’s mission also includes fostering collaborations that promote pedagogical innovation alongside technological innovation. To that end, it sponsors events convening industry representatives, professors, students, researchers, artists, and librarians to explore XR-related issues.

DEV Studio director John Bell and Varun Wescott '25
DEV Studio director John Bell helps Varun Wescott ’25 attach the reflective sensors which enable detection in the motion capture system. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

A daylong conference offered last fall by the studio and Dartmouth Research Computing explored spatial data in research and teaching. “Spatial data” refers to digital representations of real-world places and objects, such as a 3D scan of a bone, or the captured motion of a dancer.

Technology and the humanities

In addition to Bell, the DEV Studio staff include several undergraduate students and Neukom/ITC XR Fellow Claire Preston, who studied studio art and English as an undergraduate, and holds a master’s degree in virtual and augmented reality from Goldsmiths, University of London.

Preston says the interaction of technology and the humanities, such as a virtual reality project featuring the St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome over time, was what drew her to the studio.

“I really like how many of our projects are humanities-based, which is not something that you find happening many places,” says Preston, who specializes in 3D modeling and animation. “That’s what has been the most exciting for me, is seeing how we can incorporate a lot of this new technology in fields that don’t often utilize it.”

The studio’s longest-running student employee, Andrew Chen ’24, a computer science major from Hanover, says he’s been impressed by his fellow students’ skillful use of technology, such as motion capture 3D animation.

And the experience, which includes working on the Virtual Basilica project, led by Associate Professor of Architectural History Nicola Camerlenghi, has been “really good, in terms of career development,” says Chen, who joined the studio in 2020. “The projects I worked on here helped me get internships in this increasingly competitive field.”

The DEV Studio was developed with support from the Office of the Provost, Dean of the Faculty Office, Neukom Institute for Computational Science, Leslie Center for the Humanities, Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship, Information, Technology and Consulting, Dartmouth College Library, and the Design Initiative at Dartmouth.

Aimee Minbiole