Today we visited the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria. Linz is a short, pleasant train ride (about 109 kilometers) from our home base in Salzburg. Traveling by train in Europe is so convenient and easy, and in this case also so inexpensive and fast, that it is shocking to American sensibilities. It’s a cliche, but I love the availability of trains in Europe, and I long for this sort of capability in the Southeastern United States. But I fear I shall never see it there.
The Ars Electronica Center is a rather unique place; I have not visited another museum like this. This space is devoted to recent developments in technology and it’s impact on society. It’s like a hopped-up Science Museum for kids and grown ups. We saw lots of both there.
The museum building itself is modern, having been built in 1996, and modernized since. It sits on the northern side of the Danube, in a modern structure covered in LED panels that illuminate it at night.
Inside the AEC we toured a number of exhibits:
An information security exhibit laid out the case of Europe v. Facebook. Yes folks, that’s a real case, and it has to do with the ways that Facebook potentially conflicts with Europe’s stricter and more user-centric data privacy laws. I was unaware of these laws until a few years ago when working with a team in the UK on an international data security project. The US has no single data protection law comparable to the EU’s Data Protection Directive (formally known as Directive 95/46/EC), and European law seems guided by the experiences that many nations and populations had with fascist and communist regimes during and after World War II. I did not realize until I saw the exhibit that there is pending legislation against Facebook, and I will follow this case now that I am aware of it. As we have seen recently in the US, the possibility and availability of rich sets of information about what people do is almost an irresistible target for corporations and governments, even those that consider themselves above reproach.
There was a great display about human prosthetic devices, including electronic prosthetic arms and legs, as well as devices to aid the seeing and hearing impaired. The general theme of this exhibit was the level of interaction now possible between these devices and the human nervous system. The days of dumb mechanical limbs and “cosmetic only” parts is coming to and end. The state-of-the-art artificial arm is a limb with an electronically-articulated elbow, wrist, and fingers, that can be controlled directly by the human nervous system via an integrated computer. Being fitted for this device requires that whatever remaining nerves that one has from his arm be surgically relocated to a specific spot in his chest, in order better to control the arm. The arm itself has a control sensor that detects impulses from these nerves, triggered as the user attempts to use his arm just as he would have when it was present. The sensor interprets these impulses and actuates the relevant part of the arm. The whole system can be tuned via software for each specific user based on the strength and type of his impulses. The exhibit that I saw showed a man who had two of these artificial arms, and he is able to eat and to drive. He is able to perform all of the tasks of daily living using these two artificial electronic arms.
On the artistic front, there was a display using programmed prosthetic hands. These hands, each holding a mirror, moved in such a way as to create moving light patterns on an adjacent wall.
In this same part of the museum, we saw exhibits on the human eye and ear. Cochlear implants are now relatively common, and a similar device for the eye is under development. This device directly stimulates the optical nerves based on input from a sensor that is placed directly in front of the eye. I learned at this exhibit that the optical nerve actually processes quite a bit of color, brightness, and motion data prior to sending this information to the brain, in order to reduce the brain’s workload. Also, at this exhibit, we got to take a picture of the inside of Becci’s eye.
The AEC has a really cool theater for showing 2D and 3D films and animations. This theater uses eight high-definition projectors to blanket the floor and entire front wall with high resolution images. During our demonstration, we witnessed a trippy computer animation (which had originally accompanied a live pianist performing a concert of the music of Philip Glass), an interactive 3D visit to Machu Picchu (obtained by laser scanning the actual site), and an interactive 3D fly through of the Milky Way. All of the interactive 3D stuff was based on real-time rendering of actual three dimensional spatial information. The museum considers this facility much more than a theater; it is a space for rendering and immersing oneself in an interactive simulation or data visualization. Sorta mind-blowing, and utterly unique. Also, it has a nice sound system. I’d love to host a party there.
As many of you know, I am interested in 3D printers, and they have at the AEC a fabrication lab that contains a number of 3D printing and etching devices. We saw a 3D printer in action, as well as a DIY egg-printer . Becci tried out a station where one could make a 3D drawing, and this 3D model would be sent to an etching device. The etching device would spit out a set of pieces of paper that could be pieced together to imitate the modeled 3D shape. Becci chose a set of interconnected Brontosauri. These were lasered out of a sheet of paper post haste.
All of this amazing technology was supported by a small team of available, friendly, and most-importantly to us, multi-lingual docents that were on site and ready to explain how to operate the interactive exhibits, as well as the technology demonstrated by them. They were delightful. Thanks, folk of AEC!
There was a bunch of other cool stuff there, but I don’t wanna bore ya, and there is a biergarten calling my name.
Tomorrow, it’s off to Munchen. Auf Weidersen!
Bonus Pic: Logan’s Run?
Bonus Bonus Pic: I Wish…