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Faculty Member Eric Handman Honored for Digital Choreography Research

07 April 2017 Published in News and Announcements

This past Fall, Eric Handman, Associate Professor and Director of the U’s Modern Dance MFA Program, received the 2016 Faculty Award for his excellence in research from the College of Fine Arts, as well as the Campus Incentive Seed Grant which allowed for his groundbreaking research in digital choreography to come to fruition this year. On Wednesday, Handman was recognized by the University for his accomplishments as part of Celebrate U, a showcase of extraordinary faculty achievements. This Spring, graduate students from the School of Dance joined Handman to experience firsthand his developing work on a virtual relality experience aimed to give people on the autism spectrum a new outlet for creative expression.

The term “Pattern Thinker”, coined by autism advocate Temple Grandin and discussed in her 2013 book The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, describes how many people on the autism spectrum make meaning of their world through patterns. This piqued Handman’s interest, since one of the main things that a choreographic mind tends to do during the creative process is pattern recognition. Choreografish, designed in partnership with young autistic adults for those with autism, is an underwater virtual reality experience that uses choreographing with digital fish as a way of reducing anxiety and lowering the barrier to a creative arts experience.

Chreography is an inherently social activity. Because anxiety, particularly that created by social interactions, acutely inhibits the quality of life of 80% of people on the autism spectrum, the benefits that choreography might provide for them is nearly inaccessible. Handman and his team hoped to discover if a virtual reality of creating art with fish, rather than with people, could provide a safe space for those on the autism spectrum to engage with the arts and their natural inclination for use of patterns, without the sensory, social or cultural stresses that might inhibit an arts experience. It is Handman’s hope that Choreografish will provide “creative empowerment for people with autism who might actually have a skill set that’s essential for choreography.”

The graduate students in Handman’s seminar class stepped into the Lassonde Studios full of curiosity, to try out the game.

“At first it was frightening”, admits 2nd year Brianna Lopez, “because I do not typically enjoy things that take me away from reality.” But once she was there, Lopez became more comfortable and intrigued by the experience. “It is very effective in allowing a player to immerse themselves into a reality where social or cultural concerns are excluded. Instead, there is a vivid sphere of likable things, where the player has complete permission to be as curious as they want. I find the concept and the design very compelling and progressive towards a platform where children with autism can play and learn with ease.”

Dan Nguyen, a 2nd year as well, assisted Handman in the development of the work, helping to get approval from the Institutional Review Board to conduct focus groups on people with autism, a vulnerable population. Although the game can be enjoyed by anyone, this important step in the process allowed for the game to be created in collaboration with those who would benefit most from its outcome. Looking to the future, Nguyen dreams that one day “we [will] have the tracking suit technology incorporated into the virtual reality so every point on our body [will be] a point for interaction with the fish (for right now we are limited to the hands which hold the controllers) … It would be like having the power of telekinesis almost. I can’t help but fantasize about that.”

Handman credits his indispensable collaborators Roger Altizer, Director of Digital Medicine and Associate Director of Entertainment Arts Engineering, as well as Cheryl Wright, an autism researcher in Family and Consumer Studies at the U for their crucial contributions to the project.
“Without their contributions, none of this would have been possible” says Eric. In addition, the efforts of Graduate Students were critical to developing the project. Both Altizer and Wright’s graduate students assisted in developing Choreografish, along with Handman’s research assistant, Dat Nguyen, who helped develop a proposal that allowed the team to get insights from youg adults with autism. We look forward to seeing what’s next for their creation… Stay tuned!

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