High-tech pleasure dome blends science and art

On a hillside overlooking this college town on the banks of the Hudson, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has erected a technological pleasure dome for the mind and senses.

Eight years and $200 million in the making, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or Empac, resembles an enormous 1950s-era television set.

But inside are not old-fashioned vacuum tubes but the stuff of 21st-century high-technology dreams dedicated to the marriage of art and science as it has never been done before, its creators say – 220,000 square feet of theaters, studios and work spaces hooked to supercomputers.

Within its walls, the designers say, scientists can immerse themselves in data and fly through a breaking wave or inspect the kinks in a DNA molecule, artists can participate in virtual concerts with colleagues in different parts of the world or send spectators on trips through imaginary landscapes, and architects can ponder their creations from the inside before a single brick or 2-by-4 has been put in place.

It opens Oct. 3 with a three-week gala of performances including classical music, virtual reality rides, symposiums and celebrations. Some scientists dream of eventually using the new center to create a version of the “Star Trek” holodeck where humans can interact with life-size “synthetic creatures” who live only in a computer. Others plan to teach surgery by performing virtual procedures or taking doctors on tours through models of actual hearts and circulatory systems.

“What you do is a function of what you want to do,” said Shirley Ann Jackson, a physicist and president of Rensselaer since 1999.

In terms of scale and the combination of performance and research at a university, “Nothing can be compared to this,” she said. “To our knowledge, there is nothing else like it.”

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, composer and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who coined the term “virtual reality,” noted that the notion of a “virtual reality theater” was not new. In the 1990s, for example, Silicon Valley denizens attended shows at the George Coates Performance Works, an abandoned neo-Gothic cathedral in San Francisco where human actors, music and digital effects were combined.

But Empac, Lanier said, represents “a major leap in commitment and ambition.”

Jackson said Rensselaer, which prides itself on interdisciplinary research and hands-on engineering learning, had a tradition of electronic arts, including a major in games and simulations. A performance center had been part of a long-range plan she and the trustees approved in 2000. The concept of Empac was born, she said, when she and her advisers decided to combine art with the problem of making sense of data, a problem that she said lay at the nexus of art, science, technology, cognitive perception and learning.

In 2001 an anonymous donor gave the university $360 million, one of the largest private grants ever made to an American university, enabling Jackson to jump-start not just Empac but other elements of her plan as well. That gift was later augmented by $40 million from Curtis R. Priem, one of the founders of Nvidia, a maker of graphics processors, and for whom the center will be officially named.

To run the project, Jackson recruited Johannes Goebel, a composer, curator, computer music producer and founding director of the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany.

As he led a reporter on a tour of the center, Goebel described his mission. “Art integrates the senses,” he said. “Science takes the senses apart and analyzes. The idea of Empac is to bridge the gap between the digital world of data and the physical world of our senses, which is where we make sense of things and decide what things mean.”