danceroom Spectroscopy (dS)

University of the West of England & University of Bristol

danceroom Spectroscopy (dS) is a cutting-edge, interactive public engagement project that invites members of the general public to step into an interactive atomic simulation. Originally developed from Dr. David Glowacki’s research into computational atomic dynamics it has formed a major attraction at cultural and educational settings within the UK and internationally, elegantly merging research in science, technology, and art to engage people from a range of backgrounds. By visualising participants as energy fields in real-time, participants take part in an immersive visual, kinesthetic and auditory experience, generating sound and image using their movement. The project aims to open ways for a greater appreciation of the inherent beauty of the invisible atomic world, inspire the public to ask how scientists understand the world, and to enable participants to have fun.

Visitors have encountered dS in a variety of forms, each crafted in collaboration with partner institutions to reach a wide range of audiences. For example, dS has been deployed as: an interactive art installation; the fabric that knits together an acclaimed dance performance called Hidden Fields (HF), and an educational tool for teaching children about science. The project has involved dozens of prestigious international arts and cultural venues, including the Barbican Arts Centre (UK), the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad (UK), The Big Bang Science Fair (UK), World Science Festival (NYC), and reached over 100,000 people spanning ages from 3 to 83. Audience feedback gathered by interview and survey, has shown that dS reaches out to non-traditional audiences, inspiring curiosity in people who otherwise feel intimidated by science. The project continues to develop and maintain evaluation plans with collaborators, partner institutions and funding bodies, enabling a continual development of the audience experience.

“dS is a ground-breaking project that has overcome the perennial challenge of making a heavy and complex subject matter not only accessible but engaging, interactive and beautiful.UK Media Innovation awards

Upcoming opportunities for dS include a tour of dS in the USA during 2014/2015, including dates in Stanford and Berkeley; an invitation from the ZKM Centre for Art and Media Centre in Germany to develop a permanent dS installation within their gallery; the development of educational applications of dS for use in schools as part of the national curriculum and adapting dS into a platform for crowd-sourced research in biochemistry.

danceroom Spectroscopy won the Established Projects category at the NCCPE's Engage Competition 2014.

For a more in-depth look at this case study, click on the headings below.

  • The project aims
    • To make cutting edge atomic and molecular research accessible by utilising new interactive techniques to provide a visual and sonic glimpse into the otherwise invisible atomic world. In turn dS enables participants to (i) appreciate the inherent beauty of the invisible atomic world; (ii) ask questions about how scientists understand this world; and (iii) have fun.
  • Target audience
    • The general public, including patrons of art museums, science museums and school-age children. Beyond these demographics, dS aims to engage people with a wide range of backgrounds, spanning art, science, and technology.
  • How it started
    • The project was borne out of Dr David Glowacki’s (University of Bristol) frustration at trying to describe his work to friends and family. He wanted to find a way to convey his research, in a format that people would be able to engage with and appreciate. With the aim of presenting the simulations that he uses for his scientific research as an interactive work of art, Dr Glowacki brought together a number of artists, programmers and performers who together infused the original idea with their own ideas, skills and experience. The team included: Philip Tew (Pervasive Media Studio) who developed the visual components of the system; Professor Joseph Hyde (Bath Spa University) who composed the accompanying music and Dr Tom Mitchell (University of West of England) who created adaptive layers that connect the music with the simulation.
    • The piece really came to life when the project team began to think critically about how people would interact with piece. This led to working with professional dancers who really understood movement and could take the performance element of the project to another level. In taking dS into the field, new challenges have evolved for science to solve. For example, in order to perform the piece in a 360-degree projection dome at the Olympics in 2012, high-performance computing researchers at the University of Bristol helped to optimise the code so that it could be executed on a much larger scale. Therefore a project that began to explore different ways to express science to the general public, ended up solving new technological problems that led to further research in order to perform in different spaces. There were also a number of spin-offs, including schools workshops where the team would run educational sessions in which school children would be introduced to scientific concepts and invited to physically experiment with these ideas using dS. This evoked positive reactions from the children who were literally able to immerse themselves into some of the major theories behind atomic and molecular physics.
  • Partnerships, publicity and marketing
    • dS installations, performances and workshops have been deployed in dozens of prestigious international arts and cultural venues, including the Barbican Arts Centre (UK), the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad (UK), The Big Bang Science Fair (UK), World Science Festival (NYC), ZKM Centre for Art and Media (Germany), SxSW interactive festival (US), Bristol Proms (UK), Arnolfini (UK) and Watershed (UK). In the early stages, the project required a few ‘backers’ who were invested in the originality of the idea and worked collaboratively to develop the initial installation. It also it took hard work and confidence to pitch the concept to new venues and partners.
    • Media coverage has included prominent television, radio and written features, by the BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, Huffington Post, Wired, Physics World, Chemistry World, and New Scientist. This outstanding exposure has benefited all project partners. For example, dS was highlighted by the Arts Council England chair, Sir Peter Bazalgette, during his inaugural lecture (Mar 2013). The Watershed and Pervasive Media Studio have used dS as a “Talent Development Case Study” detailing successful examples of cross-fertilisation between media organisations and the academic sector.
  • Evaluation
    • A variety of techniques were used to evaluate the project. Examples include work-in-progress showings, where small groups including critical friends were invited to take part in pilots and provide feedback. Once the project was up and running the team developed a range of evaluation methods including surveys, interviews and observational studies in order to gauge and document people's reactions to the project. Feedback was used formatively to revise elements of the performance, installation or workshops. Audience feedback gathered by interview and survey has shown that dS reached out to non-traditional audiences, inspiring curiosity in people who otherwise feel intimidated by science. Recorded statistics indicate that dS has reached over 100,000 people spanning all ages, offering them a special glimpse into the invisible microscopic dynamics that govern all the matter in the universe.
  • Key to making it work
    • Throughout the development process dS would go through fast, experimental cycles, exploring new visual, sonic, and choreographic ideas. Fundamental to the success of the project was the maintenance of open channels of communication between contributors at all stages. An additional factor was the scientific curiosity exhibited by the artistic contributors and conversely the real enthusiasm that the scientists have for the arts. This resulted in a mutual respect within the team, which helped to create a cooperative and productive environment.
  • Key lessons learnt
    • The researchers on the project learnt that art is a powerful tool for communicating and immersing the public in complexity, as many artists and dancers are adept at working with abstract ideas and interpreting them for audiences.