From its fifth-floor perch atop the glass and steel research wing of the science complex, Portland’s Ci2 Lab seduces visitors with sprawling views of the cityscape.
But it’s the innerscape – where students collaboratively transform the real world into digital form and coax digital forms into reality – that offers the best views.
Strap on goggles and teleport across mountain tops or control virtual robots in a fictional factory. Imagine a game where your survival depends on blasting a coop full of chickens, and hatch it. Imagine a solid, hand-held object, almost any object, and print it.
Students have done them all.
“The lab works at the bleeding edge of technology with infinite possibilities only limited by what the students can dream,” said Raphael Diluzio, Ci2’s director.
The lab’s name is a combination of creative intelligence, innovation and collaboration, and it works as a tech-friendly incubator. Under the guidance of Diluzio and others, students work either individually or in teams to plan projects and then make them happen.
They have the use of state-of-the-art computers as well as a variety of gaming systems, video and audio production gear, drones and 3D printers. Virtual reality systems Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are part of the tool chest. And when Microsoft released its first trial wave of the HoloLens, an augmented reality system, the Ci2 managed the first two in Maine’s schools.
“We feel privileged to have been picked to be among the first in the world to receive Microsoft’s cutting-edge technology,” Diluzio said.
The cutting-edge work continues.
Plans call for new firsts in the technology and broader reach that could include new medical uses of the tools.
“We have the opportunity to explore and be open minded to new things,” Diluzio said. “Technology companies will leak out that they are seeking developers, and I am always eagerly applying to as many as I can to give us the advantage of Beta testing the brand new technology as it comes to market!”
Already some students are creating their own companies in the lab.
For instance, when Maine-based rapper Ryan “Spose” Peters prepared to launch his newest CD, titled “Good Luck with Your Life,” he came up with the idea of launching a companion video game and talked with students at Ci2.
The result was the student creation, “Spose: King of Maine,” a whimsical game in which the player tries to dodge all-terrain vehicles and hipsters in pursuit of a throne made of moose antlers. The game was released in Apple’s App store and is available for both the iPhone and iPad.
It wasn’t the first creation from USM’s students to go public, though. Several Ci2-born games were released under the Timeshock name.
“They’re proving that USM and Maine can produce video games that can compare to anything coming out of the Boston area or beyond,” Diluzio said.
Timeshock’s team worked to dismantle stereotypes that seem to accompany such development. The founding duo of Sam Capotosto and Jonah Sanville, both computer coders, brought onto their team students with varied backgrounds – an artist, a pair of writers and a marketer, a physics major and a music composer.
It’s a needed mix of skills, Diluzio said. The stereotype of such a team consisting entirely of guys hunched over computers is simply inaccurate, he said.
“True development is much, much broader,” said Diluzio, whose own career serves as an example. Diluzio has a prestigious background both as a technologist, having taught Apple personnel in Cupertino, Calif, and as a painter. He currently serves USM as an associate professor of design science/fine art.
Game creation is receiving a boost in fall 2017 with the start of a game design program at USM. Though it begins as a minor, it is expected to evolve into a sought-after major.
The lab is far more than games, though.
Students have made movies, developed software for augmented reality gear, researched hydroponics and examined battery technology for bicycles.
They also work to share their technology with area educators.
Ci2’s Acting Director Susannah Gordon-Messer hopes to encourage more projects such as this partnership with the public schools. She comes from MIT and has her doctoral degree in biophysics and structural biology from Brandeis University, and a bachelor’s in biological and environmental engineering from Cornell.
Her work at MIT’s Education Arcade allowed her to use her varied background as a scientist, teacher, researcher, designer and gamer to design educational materials that address teaching math and science in new and innovative ways.
She has begun bringing that breadth of experience to the students at USM. In June, teachers from area high schools were brought into the lab to learn about the use of 3D printers.
Engineering students Arnold Kristian (AK) Smith and Cooper Towns worked with teachers in the Side x Side Summer Arts Institute to learn the breadth of what the machines can do.
The teachers picked digital designs from an online database as Smith and Towns loaded spools of filament onto the sides of the printers.
What the teachers had chosen, the students began printing. The objects – chess pieces, sculptures and abstract designs – took shape behind the printers’ glass doors.
“Technology as an art is a whole new mindset,” said Patty Shaw Sprague of Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland.
Towns liked passing on what he learned as he tinkered in the Ci2 Lab and tried to imagine what to print next.
“The more time I spend here, the more I want to continue being here,” he said.
By Dan Hartill, Office of Public Affairs