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The Advanced Visualisation and Interaction Environment (AVIE) and children's developing brains

July 25, 2011 | William Zimmerman
AVIE - icinema.jpg
[Image: The interactive experience at UNSW's iCinema Centre. Source: The Australian]

Lost in cyberspace

Ruth Ostrow, The Australian via ISPR
July 23, 2011

You only have to be the parent of a child over the age of seven to know what I'm talking about: the vacant eyes so preoccupied by what's on screen that they can't focus on your face for more than a few seconds before being drawn back into the cyberworld.

As you talk, your little darling types or toggles. "Are you listening to me?" you ask, only to be told in a precocious tone: "Yeahhhh. I'm multitasking, Mum."

It gets worse. By 16, girls no longer seem to have use of their tongues. "Text it to me, Mum," quips my daughter, barely able to contain her contempt that she has to speak and breathe at the same time. I know one mother who got her daughter to the dinner table by posting the request on Facebook. It was so like social death for the girl that, like, she never failed to come to the table again. Technologies such as Twitter are alarmingly succinct. If you can't say it in two lines, don't bother. Luckily, I come from the dinosaur era of the telegram: "Come home (stop) Finish homework (stop) Or no mobile (stop)."

A study last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation in the US found that children from eight to 18 spend more than 7½ hours a day online and/or using electronic devices. And that doesn't count the hour and a half that youths spend texting or talking on their mobiles. Because so many of them are multitasking - chatting on Facebook while playing games, surfing and texting - they pack an average of almost 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours. Some psychologists call this behaviour addiction; the Federal Government is investigating the effects of internet use on young Australians.

British scientist Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, believes that the pre-frontal cortex, which governs empathy and compassion, needs social nourishment in order to grow and develop synaptic connections. This starts with the mother's gaze, the incredible stare of love that stimulates the brain. It is further developed by gazing at, and with, other people through smiles, sneers, flushes and changing voice tone, along with social skills such as reading. Greenfield even refers to pheromones, the smells we emit that give signals to others.

The danger with our technology-obsessed kids, Greenfield warns, is that they are no longer accustomed to the full range of messy and meaningful human interactions. Social technology is moulding children's brains so that they are unable to empathise with others; in short, we're breeding a generation of narcissists. A recent gag on TV sums this up. A comedian is selling a new device that discreetly projects text messages from his mobile onto other people's foreheads. "Now you can read your texts or Tweets and your companion will think you are really interested in them!"

But before mums and dads are tempted to pull the plug on all this new technology, there's a twist to the story. Enter Professor Dennis Del Favero, philosopher, artist and director of the iCinema Centre at the ¬University of NSW. With a team of computer scientists, engineers, filmmakers and artists, Del Favero has pioneered technology that promises to transform the interactive experience for the better. Instead of pushing us away from the world, it unites us with it.

The technology, which involves interactive multimedia, has attracted worldwide attention. It's already achieved $7.1 million in sales, most recently to China as a mining industry educational tool; the Museum of Victoria is about to launch a version of it; three universities here and abroad have expressed strong interest; and Hollywood's Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, inspected the facilities on a recent visit to Australia.

How to best explain it? It's called AVIE - Advanced Visualisation and Interaction Environment - and it's a computer program shown on a large circular screen using 12 projectors. You enter the space and 3D moving images play all around you, including above and below. It's not too far removed from Star Trek's science-fictional holodeck, a large room in which holographic images are projected from every angle to simulate an environment. And AVIE is fully interactive. The most recent project, Scenario, which was displayed at the Sydney Film Festival on its way to Moscow, operates on the basis of movement. Explains Del Favero: "As a member of the audience you walk into the space, and the space is watching you and tracking you. Characters are making decisions and changing the story according to your behaviour and your actions."

I took my daughter to a special screening of several AVIE-produced projects at the UNSW iCinema and she found the experience compelling. We were instantly down a mine shaft in 3D. After we made a wrong choice there was an explosion, and we felt terrified and claustrophobic as we tried to navigate our way out of the rubble. Then we were in a restaurant, hearing the conversations, watching the faces and body language, and trying to solve a psychological mystery in an interactive film called Eavesdrop. We visited countries in speeding cars; and sat on top of an archaeological site in India. Here is a case of interactive technology filling a real social, educational need - and not just an entertainment distraction.

The potential applications are huge. This is the classroom of the not-too-distant future. Our kids will travel the world in 3D - and feel they are really there. They will go to a 3D refugee camp and be exposed to full facial expressions, grief and fear, prompting prefrontal cortex stimulation. They'll go to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and walk up to paintings that will unfold before them, the virtual reality or "avatar" artists seeming so real they'll want to talk to them. They will build virtual buildings with their hands and gaze up at the structures.

At this stage, many people share a large space together and they talk and engage with each other, which is all part of the socially enriching experience. But over time, as the technology develops further, it will shrink down so it can become part of a circular home TV/computer system that can fit over a small family, like the cone of silence in Get Smart.

This new world of 3D immersive environments will be much better for our children's developing brains, offering contextual problem-solving and a deeper understanding of human and environmental challenges. Social media and technology are moving in ways that no one can predict. It's an exhilarating ride and quite the opposite to the messages being offered by a few fearmongers. Or, in Twitter talk: @readers. Great hope. Kids brains to grow. New Technology cool. Plug in now.

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