Interview with Multimeda Expert Roman Berka

“It’s really hard to amaze people today“

I met Roman Berka, director of the Institute of Intermedia (IIM) and lecturer at the Department of Computer Graphics and Interaction at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the Czech Technical University (CTU), at the Institute’s underground premises in Prague’s Dejvice district where many remarkable activities interconnecting the fields of technology and art take place. I wanted to learn more about the workings of the interdisciplinary institute and naturally about its links to the Laterna Magika research project.

How did the Institute of Intermedia come into existence? It was founded in 2007 but was initiated even earlier…
The history of the Institute dates back to 2003. I finished my PhD degree at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at CTU and one year later I was approached by Vít Janeček from the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU). Together we launched a development project and built two independent laboratories with a focus on multimedia; one in Beroun for FAMU students and one at Prague’s Charles Square for CTU students. The pilot program, which is taught since 2004 until today, is Intermedia Work and Technology in which we interconnect the fields of technology and creative arts and inspire students to collaborate.

In 2005, we decided that it would be best to find a space here in Prague which would be close to both schools and would have more technologically advanced equipment, as we were dealing with virtual reality, multimedia and stereoscopy. Together with FAMU and the Faculty of Architecture at CTU, we launched another development project and in the spring of 2007, we built a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment). We originally planned to reconstruct Orlík Cinema, situated in the underground premises of one of CTU’s buildings, yet it proved to be too costly; we eventually found a suitable space at another department which was no longer active at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering. With a contribution of the University, we reconstructed the space, equipped it and opened it in June 2007.

Who do you currently collaborate with and what are your activities today?
We collaborate with Miloš Vojtěchovský from the Center of Audiovisual Studies (CAS) at FAMU who is in touch with many international artists. When an interesting artist, say from the United States, is in Europe, Miloš will convince them to stop by at the IIM and hold a little lecture for the students. Today, IIM collaborates with a broad community in the Czech Republic; within this collaboration, Shannon Harvey from UK’s Backstage Academy held a workshop here in March 2017. The community around us comprises practicing artists and production managers and primarily students – ours as well as those from FAMU, the Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague and the Faculty of Art and Design at the Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem. For instance, graduate of the latter university František Pecháček and our graduate Josef Kortan collaborate in the field of video mapping until today. While that does not happen every year, students and graduates do come back and bring us their projects. These included a three-story exhibition of Petr Babák, Jakub Jansa and Lukáš Kijonka held on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Most Beautiful Czech Book of the Year competition at the Star Summer Palace on which we cooperated.

In 2016, we were approached by researchers from the Faculty of Nuclear Sciences and Physical Engineering at CTU to help them present their work to the public. So we wrote a grant application together and we are currently waiting for the results. We intensively cooperate with the Studio of Industrial Design led by sculptor and glass artist Marian Karel. We also managed to bring together our design colleagues and the interaction section of the Department of Computer Graphics and Interaction, which is our core department, represented by the Human-Computer Interaction Group. Colleagues from this research group design, test and validate user interfaces of applications on mobile and other devices. The designers help with the research, as their job is to design things used on a daily basis and it is important that they look good and are easy to use.

How does interdisciplinary cooperation work in the Czech Republic compared to the world?
There are various institutions that are similar to us. Our specialty is that we founded the Institute at a technical school which is not that common. I have come across various divisions, for example at MIT, yet they are mostly part of art faculties and attract art people who are interested in technology as well; not the other way round. Another similar laboratory is EVL at the University of Chicago; however, they exist since the 1970s, so they are significantly ahead of us. They have fine-tuned the coexistence of the art and the research team; while the researchers develop new technologies in the field of virtual reality and visualization, the artists use some of these products in their projects. This symbiosis does not work that well here yet; however, society is now seeing shifts that are more favorable to such activities.

Our advantage is that we have a technological background. However, in the past, we found it hard to explain who we are and what we do. I find that people in the world are more open to thinking outside the box. For instance, take the light facade we presented to the public last year. The response of many was rather lukewarm, and even negative at times. Too often we take a negative approach to things we don’t know or don’t understand right away. But that, too, will certainly change with time.

What are you working on within the Laterna Magika project?
We are trying to find new ways of or a new purpose for the use of technologies in the field of preservation of data on theater performances and their presentation. The Laterna Magika project focuses on the preservation of performance recordings. We have already created tools for recording or archiving motion within another project. Now we are trying to apply these things and keep developing them for the purposes of the data of Laterna Magika performances. This data carries information about the motion of actors and dancers in time. The motion of various objects on the stage can be naturally preserved as well. If we have such data at our disposal today, it can be used to create an animation for instance. However, in the future, more technologies will be developed that will be able to visualize a performance, for instance through a 3D hologram. Using such technology or virtual reality, we will be able to use this data as study and presentation material. Thus, the visitors might become part of the stage and walk through the space where the performance is taking place. Then you would not see the stage from the perspective of the audience or the camera but you would be able to see it from various angles that were not even accessible to the visitors sitting in the auditorium; you could watch the performance from the perspective of someone standing on the stage, behind it or on the side of the proscenium arch. From this point of view, it might be useful for choreographers for instance.

What have you managed so far and what are you up to?
We have created a recording of the Breakneck Ride act. We have the means to do some more and create data for a larger number of performances. One of our ideas is to do one sequence from each performance and show people what it was like in 3D. That will also show us the costs of creating data for the entire performance.

This should result in two types of software tools. One of them would constitute a part of the archive, a kind of a database to preserve data in this motion form. We are currently negotiating the way of archiving and presenting film materials and the same goes for motion data; that means how this data will fit into this context, how it will be processed and what purposes it will serve.

The second type is one of presentation, as it should give us tools to present the data. It can produce various applications for mobile devices that could use and display the data. It’s about making the best of the new information. To a certain extent, it is an experiment which is unparalleled by the current methods of record archiving in the Czech Republic. So far we are at the level of film digitization. We do have digitized 3D data; however, film archives will not usually have digitized motion in 3D.

Can you explain what motion data is?
This data is a product of capturing the movement of the limbs and torso of the dancer. We follow predefined points such as joints and the result is a recording of the position of these points in space and time. We take these points and map them onto a modelled figure in virtual reality which starts moving in the way the actor/dancer did. This process is commonly used in the gaming industry and cinema and gave rise to numerous animated films, such as The Polar Express and others. However, there are also many such applications in the field of health care which are used to diagnose patients with a locomotor disorder. Orthopedics uses applications that can calculate the strain of particular parts of the skeleton and thus enable detecting spine defects and starting rehabilitation. In sports, they can calculate movements and compare them with movements that are ideal for a sportsman to achieve the highest performance.

What makes Laterna Magika interesting for you?
Laterna Magika is a legendary phenomenon. It takes you to places where you have not been before. There is also a certain historical affinity, since to us, Laterna is something like a laboratory which blazed a trail decades ago; now we do similar things but with different technologies. Sometimes we need more than one person to achieve something; interdisciplinary collaboration is essential. Once at the beginnings of Laterna Magika, there was someone who stepped outside their field, who started creating certain ideas and was able to attract other people as well. That’s how it started and how it worked based on people’s enthusiasm and it was naturally a great success. Today it is much harder as people are oversaturated with various technological tricks and they are not as easily attracted and amazed as before. However, by bringing several disciplines together, we still manage to do so now and then.

The interview was conducted by Veronika Zýková in March 2017.