PHOTOS: UH Hilo art students learn a new kind of literacy: Transferring natural experience into a virtual world

During the six-week course, students create traditional pieces of art and then transport the art and themselves into a virtual world.

By Lara Hughes

Student in virtual head set watches scans on screen.
Art student Kala‘i Blakemore moves through scans of her ceramics model in her virtual world. Photos courtesy Julieta Aguilera, click to enlarge.


Over the summer, students in an innovative art course at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo were put on a path from hand-modeling to digitization to creating 3-D forms in a virtual world.

The Summer Arts Institute Hilo or SAiH is a six-week intensive art course offered each summer. This year it was taught by a trio of UH professors and artists who specialize collectively in ceramics, printmaking and creative media.

The students’ classrooms were located at the UH Hilo art department and the CyberCANOE facility housed at the university’s ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center. The acronym CyberCANOE stands for “Cyber Enabled Collaboration Analysis Navigation and Observation Environment,” a display technology that enables users from varied disciplines to work together on collaborative projects.

The art course was funded in part by the Academy for Creative Media. ACM was established in 2003 by the UH Board of Regents to support technology to engage all 10 campuses of the UH System in working collaboratively across the system.

Summer Arts Institute Hilo 2016

Teaching the course this summer was printmaker Jon Goebel, creative media specialist Julieta Aguilera, and ceramicist Monika Mann. The three met regularly for the duration of the course, giving each other feedback and fine-tuning each section in relation to the others.

Prof. Goebel and students around computer screen.
Critique time: Prof. Jon Goebel (standing left, purple T) with students (l-r) Laurel Brown, Katya Lee Hutchinson, Cullen Mandrayar, Nainoa Kalaukoa, Kala‘i Blakemore, Abe Andl, and Pulelehua Ulu Winchester.

“We had a fantastic dynamic among the faculty, and the students could pick up on that,” says Goebel, an associate professor of art at UH Hilo.

Each Saturday morning, Mann, a ceramics instructor at Hawai‘i Community College, worked with students on ceramic arts. Goebel instructed 3D scanning and printing in the afternoon. Aguilera, an assistant professor of art at UH Hilo, covered the evening portion of the class, which was based on navigating 3D virtual forms and the occupation of space.

Michael Marshall, professor of art and chair of the department, says, “I hope the ground breaking course format, made possible with support from the UH Academy for Creative Media at UH Mānoa and the UH Hilo ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center will continue to move forward as a model of collaboration in higher education.”

The art matrix: Moving from reality to virtual worlds

Similar to some of the technical steps used by major studios in producing state-of-the-art animation, students in the summer course first create clay models, then do scanning, 3D printing and transferal of their art into virtual worlds. This allows the students to witness the transition between diverse mediums in a smooth and comprehensive fashion.

Kamuela Chandler working on computer.
Art student Kamuela Chandler doing digital modeling.

Hawai‘i Island is a unique location where natural materials carve and mold into each other, making it the ideal place for the course.

Kala’i Blakemore stands at mouth of Kaumana caves.
Kala‘i Blakemore during class field trip to Kaumana caves.

“Artists understand how experiences in the natural world reach us through our senses, and are applying this knowledge to increase our understanding of our world through the visualization of complex data,” says Aguilera.

“Scientific visualization, the mapping of abstract data to natural experience, is increasingly becoming a new kind of literacy,” she explains. “In exploring how perception changes in different kinds of media, we hope to better prepare UH Hilo students to face the complex and incredibly beautiful challenges we face as a civilization.”

The intensive summer art program embodies these ideas.

Close up of 3D printing in progress on the art work of Kristiana Trayes.
3D printing in progress on the art work of Kristiana Trayes.

The different platforms offered in the course allow the students to do hands-on work, experimenting with the four elements of earth, wind, water and fire in clay formation. 3D printing provides a sensory basis from which to work, helping prepare the students to move the real-life forms into virtual environments.

Students are able to experiment with 360-degree imaging, motion sensing devices, and simulation techniques. They see each other draw in virtual reality using a large screen and head-mounted displays.

Students also interpret different types of physical matter through orientation, time and lighting adjustment, gravity, color, and other qualities.

This summer the class used a Facebook group account to help students communicate about their art, allowing them to share models, virtual drawings, and 360-degree images of the real and virtual world with their peers and give feedback.

The course was considered a great success.

Cullen Mandrayar working with VR drawing tools.
Using a virtual reality headset, Cullen Mandrayar gets acquainted with VR drawing tools.

One of the things that stood out to Goebel was how fresh each week was.

“We used Saturday to introduce new problems and also new technology,” he says. “When the HTC Vive (virtual reality headset) was introduced in the class, the students lit up like I have never seen. It was like Christmas morning.”

According to Marshall, the course is evolving and future plans involve moving forward in new and innovative ways.

The whole class getting a 360 photography tutorial, each student is moving paper through air.
The whole class getting a 360 photography tutorial including the visualizing of air with paper.

More photos (click to enlarge)


For those with access, a slideshow with captions is available on Google Drive.


About the author of this story: Lara Hughes (senior, business administration) is a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories