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Research as art: revealing the creativity behind academic output

Research is the lifeblood of modern universities, but there are very few ways for those behind the academic output to show the real creativity and emotion that underpins it. The story of the research is lost – the many failures that led to the results, the often tortuous process, or the ecstatic highs of successes and the serendipitous path that changes the researcher’s career all fall by the wayside.

Researchers are creative by nature – and at Swansea University we wanted to give them the opportunity to communicate their work in a different way, as art. Our annual Research as Art competition gives researchers a platform to explore their creativity and convey the emotion and humanity in their research.

The striking images entered into the competition are the hook to draw the audience in, but the text is the researcher’s opportunity to engage with people. The most compelling submissions aren’t just an image that was lying on a lab hard drive for years, or a beautiful false-coloured electron microscopy image by which colour is added to an image so that researchers can see the different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. They are the submissions that describe the years of failure in the laboratory, the inspiration, and the way researchers question themselves daily.

The Virtuality Group Arcade Machine Experiences. The 1990s saw huge developments in virtual reality. With the rise of the arcades and arcade games, it was only a matter of time, before developers started coming up with new and exciting concepts and ideas. A company known as The Virtuality Group was at the cutting edge of virtual reality, launching a wide range of arcade games and machines that let either one or a couple of players immerse themselves into amazing 3D visual experiences. This happened in 1991, a year before the movie The Lawnmower Man further introduced the Virtual Reality concept to a wider audience of people.

Below are just a selection of the images from this year’s winners, accompanied by their own words.

‘Beauty in failure’ by Emmanuel Péan, PhD researcher

This photo, taken with an optical microscope, is the result of a perovskite [a type of mineral] sample that went wrong.

The resulting picture looks like meteors crashing onto a sun. Those “meteors” and their “tails” may have been formed by the presence of impurities on the sample. In contrast, the “sun” might have resulted from ethyl acetate not uniformly diffusing into the perovskite sublayer [the slice of mineral].

Scientific research is not always fruitful, however, it is when you make mistakes that you learn the most and have the most fun.

‘Data saves lives: how do feelings become numbers?’ by Ann John, professor of medicine

I work with big data to explore children and young people’s mental health, analysing millions of anonymised routinely collected health records in a secure environment.

In a public lecture I was asked “how do feelings become numbers?” So in collaboration with artist Karen Ingham we worked with young people to use new technology differently, and explore feelings more directly. We asked them to create a 3D immersive version of their state of mind using a virtual reality Vive headset with a tilt brush. They could walk in, out and around these visual representations of feelings – a true mind-body approach.

Travel companies are using virtual reality to allow customers to visit places and determine if they wish to visit in real life.

‘Hiding in plain sight’ by Simon Robinson, research officer, computer science

In nature, some animals can blend into their environments to avoid being eaten or to reduce their impact on the ecosystem around them.

Taking inspiration from these evolved systems, we investigate the notion of chameleon-like approaches for mobile interaction design. Our approach shows the value of the concept and motivates further research in materials and form factors that can provide more effective automatic plain-sight hiding.

‘Banality from familiarity’ by Elizabeth Evans, PhD researcher, engineering

I wonder whether we researchers can become so close to our work that it becomes banal to us. Not boring or without merit, but something we have become so familiar with we forget that it’s original and unique work that no one else is doing.

Every day I analyse ancient volcanic ash using cutting edge x-ray microscopes, but it takes a third party to remind me how out of the ordinary such a career is.

‘Iron on the dress: redressing the story of Amy Dillwyn’ by Kirsti Bohata, professor of English literature and creative writing

Amy Dillwyn was one of the first British female industrialists. She has been painted as a woman whose bright future was dashed by the death of her fiancé when she was just 18. In reality, she was already in love with the woman who would dominate her life and fiction for the next 30 years. Her radical novels – some of the earliest lesbian fiction in print – bend gender and reject romantic endings.

It’s not all going to be plastic. Today, virtually everyone loves everything about VR, which accounts for the magnitude of its success. But the technology continues to evolve at a breakneck speed. One focus of technological advances related to VR is the engineering and design of the headset. Expectedly, there are ultra high-tech and complicatedly designed headsets out there. But some tech wizards have taken it one step further, thereby making it way more accessible to everyone. Now, there are tutorials about making VR headsets out of pieces of cardboard. Not only has this opened a plethora of possibilities for VR, it has gotten people to think in creative ways to upsize their experiences.

“The iron on the dress” was created by sculptor Mandy Lane, who poured molten iron over a century-old wedding dress. One observer remarked of the image: “It is like a crime scene, and it is a crime, the crime is the fact that we need to retell the story of this clearly influential woman.”

This research, and the artwork, is about uncovering and correcting the historical and literary record.

‘Mirror trees: programmable liquid metal spreading tree structures’ by Timothy Neate, research officer, future interaction technology lab

We aim to create future mobile user interfaces which are highly changeable in both their visual and tactile appearance.

Our image shows the spreading effects when a voltage is applied across EGaIn (an alloy of Gallium and Indium). Its surface tension is affected by the potential across the electrodes causing dramatic spreading effects. This means that the metal transitions from an almost perfect spheroid, to a great, flat, intricate branching tree structure. Modulating the voltage, then, can cause rapid oscillating effects to provide exciting visual and tactile feedback.

‘Aberration’ by Alexandros Alampounti, PhD researcher, physics

People Would Shell Out Money For It. Most people recognize that the best virtual reality headsets cost quite a lot. After all, the best virtual reality experience is worth spending money on. One study found that a majority of consumers would be willing to spend up to $500 for the right virtual reality gear. This is really good news, considering that some of the top headsets for virtual reality cost about $500. There are also plenty of lower-priced ones that can be used for virtual reality as well.

In our lab, we are working with atoms cooled to a millionth above absolute zero. Atomic motion becomes so slow that you can interact with them with astonishing precision. To “talk” to the atoms we need some form of postman to deliver this information: we use an optical fibre -400 nanometres thick. We place the nanofibre close to the atoms and shine a laser through it.

Simply because the size of the fibre is smaller than the wavelength of light that passes through it, light “spills out” due to a quantum mechanical effect akin to quantum tunnelling. It is thanks to this “spillage” that light propagating through the fibre can interact with the atoms which are outside of it! In this image, you see this exact “spillage” from our optical nanofibre. The beautiful pattern arises from a slight misalignment of the camera lenses, known as spherical aberration.

‘Bioblocks: building for nature’ by Ruth Callaway, research officer

More than 200 children used cubes of clay to sculpt ecologically attractive habitats for coastal creatures. These bioblocks demonstrate that human-made structures can support marine life, while children and their families have gained a better understanding of the unique resilience of sea creatures.

It is hoped that the diverse and complex habitat will enable more species to use this new material as a living space: crevices and holes will provide shelter; variable textures and overhangs will allow animals and seaweed to cling to the material.

It Makes Playing Sports Thrilling. By now you know that virtual reality can make the sports viewing experience better. As it turns out, virtual reality can make playing sports a better experience, too. There are already simulations on the market that put you in the middle of a sporting contest to see how well you do. There are some additional props required, such as a machine for driving a bobsled down a mountain. It is a cool and one of a kind experience.

Richard Johnston is an associate professor of engineering at Swansea University. This article was originally published on The Conversation (www.theconversation.com)

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