The Power of Images

UMBC’s Imaging Research Center employs innovative strategies to help researchers across the disciplines share their vision.

For 25 years, UMBC’s Imaging Research Center (IRC) has taken an entrepreneurial approach to leveraging new technologies and emerging media platforms to help researchers across the disciplines tell their stories using a wide range of visual media.

In the late 1980s, when the IRC was founded, personal computers were only just emerging and mobile phones didn’t exist. Now, in 2013, the IRC’s state-of-the-art facilities enable research in 3D visualization, immersive technologies, interactive installations, feature-length films, social media, and mobile device applications.

A hub of campus research activity, the IRC works with faculty and researchers in departments and centers across the disciplines. “At the Imaging Research Center here at UMBC, we use the broadest definition of the word ‘imaging,’” says Dan Bailey, director of the Imaging Research Center. “We work with NASA to help the general public understand our climate and our place in the universe. We’ve created a unique and comprehensive visualization of early Washington, D.C. We’ve created virtual sets for theatre, and we’ve brought inanimate objects to life in impossible and aesthetic ways.”

The IRC is also an educational facility where faculty and undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students engage in real-world, project-oriented, creative and collaborative research to complement learning in the classroom and prepare students for further learning and life after the university. The IRC continues to imagine new directions for interdisciplinary research in combination with technologically advanced media that communicate to and resonate with the general public.

A short video presenting the work of UMBC's Imaging Research Center.

A Distinctive Approach

What makes the Imaging Research Center distinct from centers at other universities working with media and visualization? It focuses on the broadest spectrum of giving voice to knowledge. Many centers, usually based in STEM fields, successfully focus on visualizing data, new media technologies, and the effort to communicate important facts through media. Another group of centers, usually based in the Social Sciences and Humanities, successfully focuses on communication, media, and their impact on individuals, specific groups, and cultures.

The IRC posits that it is important to bring together these seemingly disparate research areas to effectively innovate media that engage audiences with important knowledge. In many situations, this process is synergistic and non-linear. Instead of new data being discovered by one group, then visualized by another, explained and disseminated by a third, and finally judged for effectiveness by a fourth, the process is increasingly circular, iterative, interactive, and trans-disciplinary.

The IRC, with its broad mission, extensive labs, and diverse skill-sets, is able to support and add to this holistic approach. By building stories across disciplines, the work of the IRC reveals new insights.

For example, this year the IRC is working with NASA/Goddard to create a highly sophisticated and technical “Science On The Sphere” movie that explains a pivotal mission to measure global precipitation. Simultaneously the IRC is participating in Critical Participatory Action Research (CPAR) discussions at The City University of New York (CUNY) and has begun working with UMBC’s Language Literacy and Culture program to bring a CPAR institute at UMBC.

From another angle, while the IRC is programming a successful iPad application for the National Academy of Sciences, it is partnering with the Maryland Institute College of Art to create a community-based social media site: “Art Plus Justice.” This interactive, map-based site brings together individuals and organizations working at the intersection of art and social justice in Baltimore City.

Autonomous research projects are also underway at the IRC that demonstrate a transdisciplinary approach. “Mapping Baybrook,” a multi-faceted research effort by Professors Nicole King of American Studies and Steve Bradley of Visual Arts, studies the industrial “boom and bust” cycle of Baltimore’s Curtis Bay area and its effect on the community. The project simultaneously collects data, studies patterns, disseminates information and communicates with the local community.

The IRC has a long history of active-learning programs that engage undergraduate and graduate students in professional research activities. The past year also shows growth in cross-disciplinary activity with students. Students from Computer Science and Electrical Engineering (CSEE) and Information Systems are working on programming; students from English, Public Policy, and Political Science are writing daily blogs for USDemocrazy ; and Visual Arts students are designing animations.

Meanwhile PhD and MFA candidates are working on “Who We Am”, a blog that maintains a transdisciplinary discussion among researchers looking at the factors in human behavior.

October 8 Salon

In October 2013, in celebration of the IRC’s 25 years, a special “Salon” event was held, at which more than one hundred cultural leaders from the greater Baltimore-Washington community were given a “behind the scenes” peek at the IRC’s lab spaces and dozens of projects, both finished and in progress. Special guests for the evening included MacArthur grant recipient and choreographer Liz Lerman, and the director of cultural affairs at the National Academy of Sciences, JD Talasek.

“There's a lot to say about what artists and scientists have in common: passion, inquiry, obsessiveness, a kind of delight in tedium…There are also things that separate us, and that's very interesting too,” remarked Lerman during a panel discussion with Mr. Talasek and IRC associate director Lee Boot that focused on the IRC’s transdisciplinary approach to problem solving.

“Our structures of knowledge are very different than they used to be, and we need to find other places to find answers. Why would you continue to search for an answer if somebody in another discipline has the answer, or an answer?” added Mr. Talasek.

Learn more about the Salon here.

Looking Forward

It is intriguing to speculate what technology might be in the hands of the IRC as the next 25 years unfold, especially as we reflect on the technological leaps of the past quarter century, but there is one thing about which Dan Bailey is certain. “We want to impact the 21st Century by training excellent researchers,” he says. “We want to place graduates, undergraduates, post-baccalaureates in real world, collaborative, hands on, meaningful research situations.”

For more information on the IRC and its initiatives, including its work since the 1980s, visit its website and its Vimeo channel.