Visualization pioneer Dan Sandin creates virtual worlds

[From Northwestern University’s Medill Reports, where the story includes a 1:31 minute video; see also the web site of The Electronic Visualization Lab and Lab’s materials on YouTube]

[Image: Dan Sandin, co-founder of the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a pioneer in electronic visualization and virtual reality. Annie Koval/MEDILL]

Visualization pioneer creates virtual worlds

by Annie Koval
March 16, 2011

Left-brained or right-brained. Dan Sandin leaves such differences in the dust.

He’s both technical and creative. A computer science wiz and an artist. A logical and abstract thinker.

Sandin, 68, is a pioneer in electronic visualization who helped pioneer virtual reality art. Simply put, computer coding is his palette.

“It may seem strange but when I am doing art things, I am typing code into the computer – it’s all one activity to me,” he said. “I don’t view them separately.”

Both gigs are interchangeable for Sandin, a flamboyant innovator, sporting a full gray-white beard, thick glasses and a wind-blown haircut.

He found a place to combine his interests in 1973 when he co-founded with Tom DeFanti the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a graduate research laboratory specializing in advanced visualization, networking technologies and technological art.

Since its creation, engineers and scientists worldwide have benefited from the incredibly innovative mediums the lab has developed. The Cylindrical Varrier display incorporates 35 LCD panels and simulates an experience of flying on Mars. The Rain Table aids in understanding how rainfall disperses once it hits the earth.

“With models of atmospheric data – global warming for example – you can get that in [a] pile of print outs this high,” he said pointing to his waist. “Beginning in the ‘70s and ‘80s that is how they did it. We improve visualization of the data and are able to get better insight and context.”

One such medium he created with DeFanti and other graduate students made EVL famous in the early 1990s: the CAVE – an immersive virtual reality cubicle with three imaging walls that responded to your every move.

While researchers utilize these displays, such as General Motors who used the CAVE to simulate a driving experience, they are only one audience.

His second audience, perhaps the most important, is everyone who experiences his art and the unusual, immersive worlds he creates through computer visualization.

“Conventional artists sell people good things, I sell people good times,” he said quoting Nam June Paik, a video artist.

And that is exactly what he did in his most recent project – the StarCAVE – displayed at the Art Gallery at California Institute for Telecommunications and Information technology (Calit2) at the University of California at San Diego.

In one word, his art in the StarCAVE is “psychedelic,” Sandin said. Its dreamy experience is somewhat of a rewind back to the ‘70s with a waterfall of colors and shapes.

“I’m not interested in realism – I figure there are lots of those images from the outside world,” Sandin said. “It’s never been an interest of mine. I’m interested in abstraction – the way things move and change in time. I’m not as interested in static things.”

In the StarCAVE, Sandin puts his audience in another world – called “Particle Dreams and Spherical Harmonics.” And the kaleidoscopic adventure is almost indescribable.

“The material of that process is essentially something between being in your backyard with the hose squirting around and doing fireworks,” he said. “Sometimes it looks like northern lights, sometimes it looks like you are at a water fountain. Sometimes it’s like spray painting on a wall. There is no story, no narrative.” 

The StarCAVE is a five-sided pentagon-shaped virtual reality room that projects animations created by Sandin in stereo – meaning it is experienced in 3D with polarized glasses – on 360-degree screens. Displays totally enfold you.

And while the resolution in the original CAVE was so low that it technically did not meet driving standards in Illinois, the StarCAVE with all its panels has a combined resolution of over 68 million pixels.

“The StarCAVE is the best cave,” Sandin said. “What differentiates it is that it is a higher resolution and much sharper.”

An important aspect of the StarCAVE – and in virtual reality – is allowing the audience to be the “narrator” of their experience, Sandin said.

“In today’s media, whether it be television or movies, you are at the position of the camera – it’s not your view of the world, it’s the narrator’s view of the world,” he said.

But in Sandin’s art, the audience is in control of what they view, when they view it and when they want to move on to another scene.

“If you decide to walk over and look at that rock, you walk over and look at the rock,” he said, “and if you decide to walk around the sculpture, you walk around the sculpture and you see it.”

That approach is more suited to human capabilities: virtual reality is a “better human-computer interface.”

In creating this advanced technology, Sandin overcomes two obstacles: he is dyslexic and along with a small percentage of the population, cannot see 3D images.

Still, coding comes natural to him. “If he does mix coding up here and there, students jump in and help correct it,” said Maxine Brown, associate director at EVL since 1987.

Dennis Chau, a graduate student at the lab, meets with him monthly to work on stereo experiments.

He asked Sandin about creating 3D objects for art but not being able to see them – how does he know they are right?

“He told me that, after looking at it for so many years, he’s just developed cues,” Chau said. “He’s just gone way beyond a normal person to do this.”

Sandin’s philosophy is that artists should use the most advanced tools of their time to make their art, Brown said.

“Rembrandt and Da Vinci were chemists who made their own oil paints – they had to build their tools and then they used them,” she said. “Dan has to build the tools in order to do the art.”

Sandin had been interested in colors since he was 6 years old. He was born and raised in Rockford. His father was a photographer and Sandin picked up his first camera when he was a boy.

“That is where my visual training came from – working with father and learning on my own taking pictures,” he said.

Sandin graduated with an undergraduate degree in natural science from Shimer College in Mount Carroll in 1964 and a master’s degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1967.

Before he co-founded the lab, in 1969, he joined the faculty of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Over the decades, Sandin’s interest followed with the newest medium.

In the 1970s, it was “lower costing portable video equipment that individuals could afford and taking it off into the real world, not just TV studios,” he said. And he was creating the Sandin Image Processor, a synthesizer that alters video images.

Then, he began to mix his interest in video with computers. Sandin particularly focused on a litany of ways to modify, process and create digital images all through the 1980s.

From there he moved on to computer animation and virtual reality, which he has continued exploring today.

“My medium has always been technologically involved and has always had to do with exploiting new media as those characteristics became available, because that was allows me to combine more of my being,” he said. “I am a trained physicist – I know some mathematics. I look at the world in a kind of mathematic-scientific-analytic way, but then, of course, I am a normal human being too.”

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