Maria Roussou worked for years (1993 – 1997) at the CAVE of Electronic Visualization Laboratory in Chicago . From 1998 till 2002 she directed the Virtual Reality Department of the Foundation of the Hellenic World in Athene. She cooperated with several museums, such as the Minneapolis Walker Art Center , where she was in charge of online art education. She studied Electronic Media and Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at Illinois University in Chicago , she is PhD in Computer Science at London University and teaches New Technologies & Museums for Master of Arts program in Museum Studies at Athene University .
She is member of several organizations, such as ACM – Association for Computing Machinery , IEEE Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, ICOM International Council of Museums ACM Association for Computing Machinery, IEEE Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, ICOM International Council of Museum. She was also scientific advisor for Fournos Center for Art & Technology and member of the organizing committee of the International Festival on Art & Technology Medi@terra .
In 2005 she founded together with Dimitri Nastos e Vali Lalioti , her makebelieve company , which deals with interactive design and counselling, and gives importance to users, fuctionality and virtual interactive digital experiences. Roussou’s experience takes inspiration from contemporary studies on education and cultural technology, without forgetting entertainment and marketing.
Photo by: the CAVE
We talked with her, starting from the latest news…
Silvia Scaravaggi: Since your work is characterized by different experiences, I would like to start from the latest activities of makebelieve, the company you’ve recently created and which is dealing with interesting projects regarding digital and virtual reality, such as immersive passive stereo wall of the University of the Aegean in Mytilene and the digital project for the Museum of Marble Working in Tinos. .
Maria Roussou: makebelieve is in its third year we are a very small company, at its core, and work with a team of about 20 external collaborators, freelancers and companies. This allows us to be dynamic and flexible, that is, to take on a broad range of diverse projects, such as the recent ones you mention which exemplify the diversity of our work. The VR power wall installed at the University of the Aegean is an infrastructure project; we put together the specifications and then the complete set of software tools that is required for the system to operate. Most importantly, however, we set up the authoring platform with which the users (in this case researchers and students of cultural informatics) will be able to create their own VR environments. This is essential if we want these kinds of systems to be used in practice and not just as fancy demonstration hardware. And since we are not a computer hardware company, or even a conventional computer software company for that matter, our main interest in this project has been to create the environment for the development of virtual reality projects in the cultural field by content domain experts (museologists, archeologists, etc.) who are not necessarily computer savvy. This is the only way to support widespread use that can be sustainable.
Photo by: the McDonalds’s videogames – Molleindustria @ mediaterra 06
On the other hand, the digital production for the Museum of Marble Working is essentially a film that accompanies the exhibition content inside the museum, specifically the section relating to the techniques and processes of marble mining. It is a sophisticated production combining accurate 3D modeling of early 20 th century machinery used to transfer blocks of marble and cut them into “slices”, with historic photographs from the 1920s, sketches, animation, 3D sound, etc.
The purpose of the film is to illuminate the industrial era techniques and processes that once formed the basis of the industrial revolution but no longer exist; to demystify and bring forward aspects of our industrial history that have been overlooked, especially in a country where emphasis is given on its ancient history and civilization; and to present traditional exhibition content, such as the photographs, in a novel and engaging manner. This project is an example of the way we work at makebelieve: an interdisciplinary team of about 10 designers (two 3D modelers/animators/post-production artists, an illustrator, and a sound designer), a programmer, content experts (in this case two mechanical engineers, an historian, and a museologist), and the producers, working together with the exhibition designers, from the brainstorming and storyboard phases all the way to final installation in the museum so as to ensure that the production is integrated in the context and that it meets the needs that have been set for it at the outset.
Silvia Scaravaggi: What does virtual reality and interactivity implies? How important and useful is to bring them inside a museum?
Maria Roussou: If you are referring to immersive projection-based virtual reality installations (the kind that I’ve worked with, like the CAVE), there are many practical issues regarding their use in public spaces: cost, space requirements, continued maintenance, specialized staff, custom content development, etc. Such practical issues are still overpowering -despite some progress with the tech- especially for smaller museums. And even if or when such issues cease to be a problem, museums have many other priorities and issues to deal with. In this sense, virtual reality infrastructure inside a museum is overkill, a luxury that only very few or very specialized museums can afford. The Foundation of the Hellenic World that I worked for is one such special case since it does not have a collection of physical objects so it relies on audiovisual methods and virtual technologies. Also the theme that it deals with is rather abstract (Hellenic history) and difficult to visualize, as many of the relics of the past can no longer be experienced otherwise. In this case, VR can make a significant, if not critical, contribution to the experiential, exhibition, and educational goals of the museum. Yet, even in museums that deploy VR, there is still some way to go before public interaction within these kinds of spaces is meaningful, overcoming the technical and practical shortcomings.
Silvia Scaravaggi: After having studied and worked in the USA, you’ve been working in Greece, your native country, for years. How do you work in Europe , in the Mediterranean area? How are are these topics dealt with? What do you think of the European panorama after your American experience?
Maria Roussou: Greece is a small country with an economy that relies mainly on tourism (cultural and leisure-based) and agriculture. There is a limited industry, thus limiting also the research and development efforts that are carried out on a basic level. This restricted research activity runs down the ladder to the more recent research areas, such as information technologies and human-computer interface and interaction issues technologies that relate closely to the use of advanced digital means in public spaces. Research that takes place in these areas is mainly funded by the European Union, which means that research projects have a beginning and an end, with little chance for continuation and further development. I believe that this, to some extent, is also a problem with larger countries; research is funded in areas where there is money and ultimately financial benefit from it hence, it is industry and commerce drive research. In larger and more organized countries some of this research effort eventually spills over to topics that do not have immediate economical gains (social research, interaction research for museums and cultural departments, etc.). I’m afraid that in Greece we will continue relying on European funding for such research.
Photo by: Grid Chase – The 5 Dance Pad Project @ mediaterra 06
Silvia Scaravaggi: Your CREATE project, “Constructivist Mixed Reality For Design, Education, and Cultural Heritage”, which you developed for Computer Science Department of University College in London , is an example of research supported by EU. You worked to develop a real-time interactive structure linked to real sources by connecting virtual reality and cultural contents in an educative context.
Maria Roussou: CREATE was a research project funded by the European Commission as part of the Information Society Technologies programme. It is part of the EU’s strategic objective for these projects to form research collaborations between different types of organizations (from academia, companies, research labs, public institutions) that come from many different countries. On a micro level, makebelieve works exactly in this way, bringing together many creative individuals that pool their expertise and, in doing so, are able to produce results that would otherwise not be possible. These connections are not only important in making creative and productive leaps, they are essential when it comes to working with and applying digital technology: nowadays one can not work unconnected and know all.
Silvia Scaravaggi: Let’s go back to your work for CAVE in Chicago and to your studies in the United States and London ; what kind of experience were they?
Maria Roussou: Every place I’ve worked at has given me wonderful learning experiences. However, it is the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) in Chicago (where the CAVE was invented) that is at the top of my list in terms of influencing my future directions. Creativity and innovation were both affluent at EVL when I was there, from 1992 to 1997. It was also a time when the first web browser (Mosaic) was invented, and when the CAVE was created. EVL had a leading role in both these advancements, and provided the materials, the events, the people, and the circumstances for one to flourish an entire context that I was very fortunate to be part of. My short experience at the Walker Art Center was also quite intriguing and influential. It was the first museum I worked for and the project (artsconnected.org to digitize and make available to the public a large collection of contemporary works of art) was a very interesting and challenging project that incorporated many of the complex issues that museums have to deal with in relation to their digital presence.
Museum of Marble – photo credit makebelieve.gr
Silvia Scaravaggi: Do you think we will get to the point when digital technology and interaction design will become commonly used and part of every-day life?
Maria Roussou: We are already there, I think. Interactive technologies and processes are increasingly part of our daily life. The current generation of 10 year olds cannot conceive that there once existed a time when there was no “remote control”. The concept of the remote control, i.e., an interface to some technology that gives us control over it, is no longer something that we notice or pay attention to it is so much engrained in our daily life that it has moved to the subconscious.
Silvia Scaravaggi: I would like to talk about your experiences as far as education is concerned: you worked a lot on the interaction between technologies and education, on cultural resources and digital technology potentials.
Maria Roussou: There is a growing sense of the educative function of informal educational institutions, such as museums and science centres. At the same time, these venues have grown to be competitive so the development of programs and exhibition content is juxtaposed with the commercial pressure of competing with other venues for visitors’ free time. This is where digital technology can play a role in combining these two worlds tackled by today’s museums, to educate and entertain, and this where the work we do with makebelieve and my experience comes in. Since these educational contexts place emphasis on situated and constructivist forms of learning, interactive exhibits provide promising platforms for delivering such learning activities and experiences. It is my experience that the adoption of digital technologies by informal educational institutions is becoming more commonplace, thus also advancing the development of systems and applications with respect to their vividness of representation and interactive capabilities.
Silvia Scaravaggi: You could see these potentials at work, in relation to users: how does young visitor audience react to new education activities, to virtual reality and interactivity?
Maria Roussou: It is a fact that children nowadays represent a large and growing market for interactive products and in every new application directed to young consumers, from computer games to educational software, interactivity is being advertised widely, primarily for its recreational potential but also for its significance for learning. This is even more prominent in the case of VR, since interactivity is largely regarded as one of the medium’s essential properties. Compared to other computer-based multimedia systems there is common belief that with VR, the effectiveness for learning is substantially more than that with conventional methods. However, little systematic research is available to substantiate this assumption and, to date, no clear evidence exists that interactive VR applications can bring “added value” to learning, especially for children.
My research in this area has focused exactly on this issue, i.e., on interactivity in immersive virtual learning environments and its effect on conceptual learning, addressing it through the design of a set of interactive virtual environments and experiments. The findings from my analyses have indicated that the VR experiences were instrumental in maintaining high motivation and focus. The children that performed learning tasks in the interactive VE were able to complete the tasks successfully, aided by the cues and feedback mechanisms that were embedded in the design of the environment. This feedback was able to challenge their conceptions and create opportunities for resolution of prior misconceptions that emerged. As the interactive VR environments provided the participant with first-person exploration and manipulation capabilities, it was able to stimulate and maintain a continuous engagement in action. But of course further study on a long-term basis is required to examine the elements that comprise the complex relationship between the learners, the digital tool (in this case a virtual environment) and the learning objective, and, ultimately, to acquire a deeper understanding of what constitutes learning within virtual environments and how to design better such environments.
Silvia Scaravaggi: As far as the other experiences you had with Fournos Center for Art & Technology, as member of Medi@terra festival, what direction have you chosen?
Maria Roussou: Medi@terra is an art & technology festival that started 8 years ago by Manthos Santorineos of the Fournos Center for Art & Technology and has since been exploring different issues in the broader spectrum of digital media, each time with a different theme that is either of current interest or part of a larger theoretical debate. In 2006, Mediaterra dealt with games and gaming, a theme that is undoubtedly very trendy but which has also started to establish a theoretical foundation -Mediaterra looked at both the public and the theoretical aspects of this theme and I see future in this respect.