Since the Scene's first Innovations Issue in 2009, one thing has remained constant: the churn of new ideas right here in Nashville, from the creatively quirky to the potentially transformative.
That can mean applying something new to something old — putting a liquid center in a vinyl record, or bridging neuroscience and education. It can mean transforming a familiar object like an Android tablet into a touch-learning tool for blind math students, or taking an unmanned aerial vehicle and programming it to map ancient ruins and create detailed digital maps.
But innovation isn't just about things, and as these 13 projects demonstrate, Nashville is teeming not only with big ideas, but with the kinds of people who can set them in motion.
For Vanderbilt archaeologist Steven Wernke, there was some good news and some bad news. The good news: While searching the archives at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he found some aerial photographs, taken in 1931, of a reducción (a kind of Spanish colonial planned community) in a remote part of Peru. This was exactly the sort of thing he wanted to study in more detail, and he later figured out exactly where it was located.
The bad news: To create a detailed map of such a large and complex site using current methods would take at least two years, possibly up to four. That's because the blimps and kites commonly used for this purpose fly in erratic paths, and the resulting images must be individually hand-matched to GPS data — an expensive, time-consuming and labor-intensive process.
After thinking about the problem for a while, Wernke came up with the idea of using an unmanned aerial vehicle — a UAV, or drone — to fly over the site, and then automating the image-matching process to create a 3D digital model. So he called Vanderbilt engineering professor Julie Adams and asked, "Can we build a UAV to do this?"
"OK," Adams remembers responding. "Who are you?"
As it turned out, Adams was indeed thinking about new applications for UAV technology, and her interests intersected with Wernke's in some intriguing and unexpected ways. But there was nothing on her website or CV indicating that. Wernke, after doing some research on possible collaborators, had cold-called her.
"I just kind of imagined that she would be the right kind of person," Wernke recalls with a grin.
This summer, Wernke and Adams have been on site in the Andes field-testing the product of their partnership thus far. The Semi-Autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or SUAVe for short, consists of an Aurora Flight Sciences Skate — a fixed-wing, vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft about the size of a large pizza box — a GoPro HD digital camera, a GPS unit and a sophisticated controller.
The hardware, though carefully selected, is the easy part. Adams' most daunting task is perfecting the algorithms that will automate the flight, image gathering and GPS-correlating processes. Those algorithms have to account for a number of factors, including wind speed, wind direction, altitude above sea level, sun angle and battery life of the vehicle. The goal is to eventually perfect the system so that anyone, even with no technical expertise, can simply draw a rectangle on a computer screen, thus defining the area to be mapped, hand-launch the SUAVe, and let it go to work.
The resulting 3D image, not unlike what you see in Google Maps' "street view," would be highly detailed. In the best satellite imagery available now, one pixel represents about a half-meter. Wernke and Adams expect the SUAVe to produce images at 10 times that resolution — about 5 centimeters.
Wernke imagines a vast repository of archaeological data could be created at an unprecedented pace, which could be the last best chance for serious study in some cases. "Archaeological sites are disappearing quickly," he says.
Beyond the benefit to archaeological study, which would be enormous, Wernke says he sees the potential for even greater value: The SUAVe could empower the local people his teams work with in the field — "what I like to call our 'hosts,' not our 'informants,' " he adds.
"I can imagine this being used to do land surveys at the request of the communities that we work with," Wernke says. "They [could] document their own field holdings and their own irrigation systems."
And Wernke and Adams have already talked to professors in Vanderbilt's earth sciences department, who say using such a system to track the effects of climate change would be immensely helpful and cost-saving: A single image-collecting flight can cost $50,000, with rapid change necessitating multiple trips per year. By contrast, the SUAVe's one-time cost would be about $25,000.
If successful, systems developed as a result of the project could also be useful in what Adams calls "mass casualty, chem-bio, rad-nuclear and explosive events — things like 9/11." Adams' interest in UAVs developed, in part, out of her work with first responders, who told her they could use some kind of robotic unit to quickly assess conditions on the ground in the case of a large-scale catastrophe.
"If the bat tower collapsed, that's going to change the downtown structure," Adams says, and a device like the SUAVe could help provide an up-to-the-minute view of which streets are blocked by debris and where emergency crews are most needed.
"The things we're trying to pull together, people have looked at individually but haven't brought together yet," Adams says. She says it took "a long time" to get from that initial conversation to a workable proposal and, eventually, a flying pizza box with a camera and GPS strapped to it. But if her calculations are right, a lot could come from the little mapping drone she helped create with an archaeologist who called her one day out of the blue.
Math is the universal language.
Two plus two is four in Tennessee, just as it is in Timbuktu or Turkmenistan. And a parabola looks the same in Nashville as it does in Nice.
But what if you can't see the parabola?
The traditional method for teaching blind students about geometry concepts is quaint: It usually involves a corkboard with tacks connecting strings or pipe cleaners. The students run their fingers across the board and perceive the lines by feeling. This method, while effective, is time-consuming. Students also tend to find it difficult re-creating the shapes.
And come on — pipe cleaners?
Vanderbilt grad student Jenna Gorlewicz, with the help of her adviser Robert Webster, has come up with a very 2012 way of teaching algebra and geometry to visually impaired students.
Concepts that once had to be seen to be understood can now be felt.
Utilizing the touch screen and vibration features of the Android tablet, an app developed by Gorlewicz has the visually impaired feeling that parabola, touching that line.
"It uses haptic — that's vibratory — touch screens. [Android] can make any kind of sound you want, so using the vibrations and sounds, the students can feel an image on the touch screen and hear it," she says. "If there's a line on the screen, when the finger isn't on the line, there's no vibration."
The app catapults the old-school string-and-tack method into the 21st century while relying on tried-and-true methods of teaching the blind about the very visual world of math.
"It parallels the way they already learn, but it's different in the sense [that] it's vibrations," she says.
Gorlewicz didn't start her graduate work with a plan to turn the world of math education on its head. She actually began in Vanderbilt's Medical and Electromechanical Design Laboratory, working on medical robotics.
"I loved those, but what I wanted to do was find a project where I could work more with people. Through my funding with the National Science Foundation, I was able to do that," she says. "I had an interest in education, and about that same time touch screens were coming out. I was learning about this technology, and all these things came together. I thought we could do better with the technology we had."
She's worked with Metro Nashville Public Schools students and teachers, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Because of Android's open-source programming model, tweaks can be made relatively easily.
Proof that the app is not only working but encouraging advancement: One change that students have asked for is to make the program more like the graphing calculators ubiquitous in high-school math classes, which would open the door to even more complicated concepts.
As the haptic technology has evolved since Gorlewicz's project began in November 2010, so has the app.
For example, in the standard X-Y grid, she can set the X axis and Y axis to vibrate at different frequencies than the graphed line, and set points along those lines to make a certain tone. The students can then "see" with their fingers where they are on the graph.
Early tests of the app have been successful, and now Gorlewicz is working with Android to get the programming "more polished."
Gorlewicz hopes to eventually integrate a setting that would allow teachers to load in math problems to their students' tablets wirelessly, so blind students could participate with their sighted peers in real time. The teacher would draw the graph on the blackboard and then on her tablet, which would send it via Bluetooth to the students' tablets.
She's also working with teachers to identify which concepts in math are best suited to the tablet so modules suited to specific lesson plans can be written.
"There are so many directions you can go. There's lots of different facets, and I'll be pressing many and all of those," she says. "When we first brought it to the teachers and after using it and working with it they are extremely excited about it. ... We are going to work with teachers to come up with lessons to pick out the lessons that are very visual in nature."
The Frist has worked with Nashville-based new media firm Digital Wonder Cabinet to develop a free iPad app that brings the gallery-going experience into the digital era — and it goes well beyond a lot of similar apps that function as little more than glorified museum signage. The gallery guide for Creation Story: Gee's Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial is the perfect example of what a good app can add to an already engaging exhibit. There's plenty of rich history to sort through — from maps showing the geographic isolation of Gee's Bend to photographs of the quilts in Depression-era homes — but there's also contextual information provided, like images of boarded-up windows whose patterns are echoed in many of the quilts, along with the ability to zoom in on the photos of the works to examine fine details like stitches and texture.
Brick Factory and The Skillery are two separate entities with similar goals — to provide hands-on, practical, step-away-from-your-computer lessons to curious folks, while maintaining the high level of interactivity that we 21st century types have come to expect.
"We want to provide a facility where people can come and teach others their craft, their skill set," says Ryan Schemmel, co-founder of Brick Factory, a space in Cummins Station that opened in February and which functions as a classroom, photography studio, woodshop, gallery space and music venue. After each month's downtown Art Crawl, they host an Aftercrawl party — this month's featured music by Big Surr, art by Emily Clayton and the clandestine feel of a house party in a practically spotless central location.
The Skillery, meanwhile, is an Internet platform that founder Matt Dudley created as a means for people to "become the kind of person you always dreamed you could be." It functions as a branding and marketing tool, as well as an online marketplace for people to find and enroll in classes. They currently offer registration for a kombucha-making workshop at the Green Wagon, a class on American whiskey at Holland House, and a fashion photography and studio lighting class at Brick Factory.
Creating a partnership between the two entities has been invaluable, Schemmel says, even if a lot of people think they're the same thing. "If we didn't partner with him [Dudley], we wouldn't get nearly the amount of students that we do," says Schemmel. "The only drawback is confusion."
Brick Factory has partnered with local aerial dancers who use the space as a studio, and the bundles of cloth the dancers suspend from are permanently affixed to the Brick Factory ceiling. A research club hosts artists, scientists and other specialists who give informal talks on their work over coffee and brunch on certain Sundays. Schemmel stresses the fact that there are no built-in teachers on staff, and both Brick Factory and The Skillery rely on community members to teach their own unique skill sets in order to function.
"It doesn't work unless you guys come forward and let us know," Schemmel says. If that's not a call to arms, I don't know what is.
Jack White's Nashville-based label Third Man Records is known for inventive releases, from multicolored vinyl to big-name collaborations and collectors' items from a slew of artists. But it looks as though Mr. White saved the really groundbreaking stuff for himself, releasing two very unique versions of his 12-inch vinyl single "Sixteen Saltines," a track from this year's JW solo debut Blunderbuss.
Both versions of the "Sixteen Saltines" 12-inch are backed with a playable etching featuring a cover of U2's "Love Is Blindness." The etching, which depicts Third Man's logo, was designed by George Ingram — president of Nashville Record Productions — and created via a silk-screening process. While artists including Styx and Split Enz have released playable laser-etched vinyl in the past, the grooves on those etchings aren't raised, whereas the image on the "Saltines" single sits above the rest of the grooves.
A second version of the "Saltines" single — featuring the same audio — was available only at the TMR storefront on this year's Record Store Day (in April). In addition to the playable etching B-side, the second "Saltines" single boasts a feature that according to Third Man, has never before been successfully achieved: It's filled with liquid. ("While the soundtrack for the 1978 film The Black Hole was initially prototyped as a liquid-filled disc," notes a TMR spokesman, "problems with leakage prevented it from ever being released.") The vinyl itself is clear, allowing listeners to peer into a pocket on the inside of the record that is filled with translucent, psychedelic blue liquid.
White also happened to release 1,000 copies of his "Freedom at 21" flexi disc single via helium balloons this year. Check back next year, when Third Man will release an LP pressed entirely on peanut brittle. Kidding.
At least we think so.
In June, the nation's largest radio conglomerate struck a groundbreaking deal with one of country music's biggest labels. Clear Channel Entertainment will pay Big Machine Records (and ostensibly its performers) royalties for the terrestrial broadcast of sound recordings — something broadcasters have never before done, and fought long and hard never to do. Traditionally, songwriters and their publishers were the only ones to profit from radio spins.
Since Clear Channel isn't exactly known for its magnanimous business tactics — think Dick Cheney on the FM dial — what does the company stand to gain by loosening its vice grip on Big Machine, a Music Row giant that's home to country heavyweights like Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw? The answer: the other kind of currency.
Clear Channel clearly feels the looming threat of the same digital revolution that all but swallowed the label industry whole and spit out iTunes, Pandora and Spotify — terrestrial broadcasting's increasingly viable competitors — in the process.
Simply put, Clear Channel is a broadcaster trying at best to keep up with, and at worst to undercut, webcasters that by law have paid out performance royalties since the dawn of online streaming. Per-play digital licensing fees are a costly economic hurdle for webcasters. As part of this agreement, Big Machine will license its catalog directly to Clear Channel, potentially saving the company a fortune as it sets up its digital dominoes.
Optimists hope this deal will pave the way for future performer- and label-friendly broadcast agreements and eventually prove a game-changer for a music industry hard up for revenue streams. But it's too soon to tell how and if Clear Channel's seemingly sacrificial investment in a shift towards digital will trickle down to affect artists and labels in an indie ecosystem where dependence on terrestrial radio is ever diminishing.
Developed by Nashvillian Pico Mitchell, TuneSpan is a Mac OS app designed to make "spanning" — that is, storing your iTunes files across multiple external drives — easily manageable. A dream come true for film, television and music wonks with oodles of gigabytes to juggle, TuneSpan allows the user to keep tabs on all of his or her media with an aesthetic and an interface that are similar to those of iTunes itself. It isn't exactly a glamorous innovation, but it's the sort of e-housekeeping must-have that will make Mac-using media hoarders wonder how they ever survived without it.
The American Dream has its downsides.
That white picket fence outside the three-bedroom, two-bath in the suburbs isn’t just decoration: It’s a physical boundary. It keeps your family in, and keeps others away. That minivan and that sedan in the driveway make it possible to go to work and come home again without ever interacting with another soul.
Sometimes the best innovations are those that turn dreams on their head.
Next year at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Taylor Street in Germantown, Nashville's first cohousing development will come out of the ground.
Cohousing is a movement that started with two expatriate architects who lived in a highly communal way while studying in Europe. Essentially, each homeowner trades smaller personal space — the homes in the Nashville project will range from 750 to 1,300 square feet — for "upsizing our social connections," according to project creator Diana Sullivan.
"We are moving into smaller homes with flexible common space. ... We're getting rid of rooms you use part of the time. It's living more efficiently and it's putting more focus on the community," she says.
At the center of the development is a common house: a place with TVs, dining rooms — even extra bedrooms for when residents have guests. It will always be visible from anywhere in the neighborhood, a very literal community front porch. Deconstructing the traditional model of American home life is no easy task: Forced community means unavoidable interaction. And as Sartre reminded us, sometimes hell is other people.
In a cohousing environment, getting away from other people isn't as easy as retreating to your family room, because it's everybody's family room. So learning to talk to other people from different backgrounds and of different generations — Sullivan says the Nashville participants cut a wide demographic swath — is crucial.
"We're all trained in different methods and motivations of communication. Not only are we working to build a custom-designed neighborhood, we're working on a way to communicate and know one another," she said.
It's a new way of talking for a new type of neighborhood.
It's a new way of living the American Dream.
According to legend, "blivet" — commonly defined as "10 pounds of crap in a five-pound sack" — is World War II-era military slang for a messed-up situation. Over the years, it got attached to the thick rubber bladders used to transport fluids and fuel. The term stuck, in part because the blivets inspired plenty of cursing.
Their problems were many. Whether filled or empty, the bladders were cumbersome. A written account for the Fort Campbell Courier compared lifting one to "trying to move a waterbed." Worse, they were difficult to deliver. Imagine trying to sling-load (or air-land) a giant water balloon on Afghanistan's craggy terrain without bursting it.
There was an alternative: 500-gallon barrels. But these bulky behemoths take up disproportionate ground space and are too heavy for one soldier to carry. An army's ability to advance depends on such logistics. And that's why it was hailed as a breakthrough when the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts, working from an idea supplied by Fort Campbell's 101st Sustainment Brigade, devised the Lifeliner CUBE.
The CUBE (Container-Unitized Bulk Equipment) looks like an oversized plastic milk crate, outfitted with a 400-gallon liner. But simplicity is part of its beauty. Because of its shape, the CUBE is easier to sling-load and stack vertically. Because of the hard plastic sides, the blivet within stands less chance of bursting. Because of its relatively light weight, it can be collapsed when empty and carried by a single soldier.
Best of all, it shaves an estimated 60 percent in costs off the traditional blivet. According to 101st Sustainment Brigade public affairs officer Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mayes, the CUBEs can also be moved from all four sides by forklift and joined together.
As Spc. Michael Vanpool of the 101st wrote in his recap for the Courier, the CUBE moved from idea to implementation with unusual speed: one year, instead of the usual six to eight. In May, the Greater Boston Federal Executive Board, established in part to reward cutting government costs and improving efficiency, honored the CUBE with the Initiative Award for Creativity and Innovation. But proof of the CUBE's real worth can be found in Afghanistan — where, Vanpool writes, more than 100 have already been deployed.
Unless you're in the .05 percent of the population who enjoyed physics in high school, the term "quantum" probably calls to mind James Bond or Scott Bakula. But researchers at Vanderbilt University are working on a project that could bring the word into the everyday vernacular, and perhaps even have a hand in saving the planet.
Quantum dots, which were originally discovered in 1980, are tiny beads of semiconductor material that possess distinctive electronic properties, including the ability to emit various colors of light. In 2005, a team of Vanderbilt chemists — professor Sandra Rosenthal and then-graduate students Michael Bowers and James McBride — accidentally discovered that quantum dots, when paired with blue light from LEDs, produced a warm white light.
The significance of this discovery — which earned the chemists a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award in 2006 — is that quantum dots may be the key to developing quality, efficient, eco-friendly white light. This would be a vast improvement over the fluorescent lights that make everyone look disturbingly anemic, or the electricity-eating incandescent bulbs that are falling out of usage.
The biggest barrier in the development of quantum dots is that historically, their efficiency clocked in at just 3 percent — too low for commercial use. But in May, Rosenthal, now the Jack and Pamela Egan Chair of Chemistry, announced that her team had made a dramatic leap in efficiency.
"We have demonstrated that our ultra-small nanocrystals that emit broad spectrum white light can do so with a fluorescence quantum efficiency of 46 percent," Rosenthal says. "Next steps in this research would be to fabricate prototypical devices incorporating these nanocrystals, and exploring fundamental research that could lead to these nanocrystals emitting light with even higher efficiency."
If Mark Wallace is right, the classroom of the future will look something like an Apple commercial.
Imagine a throng of fifth-graders taking instruction not only from a flesh-and-blood teacher, but also from tablet computers running software tailored to each student's individual brain wiring. Science fiction? Not according to Wallace, who directs Vanderbilt University's Brain Institute. This fall, the institute will partner with the university's renowned Peabody College of education and human development to implement the country's first doctoral program in the burgeoning field of educational neuroscience.
"If you think about traditional classroom learning, it hasn't changed much in 30 or 40 years," Wallace says. "Our idea with the new generation of students trained in educational neuroscience is that they will be able to create classroom environments in which kids are able to learn using a whole variety of multimedia technologies."
By combining the Brain Institute's research on the maturation of the human brain with cutting-edge technology and innovative educational techniques pioneered by Peabody, educators will be able to deliver course materials in a variety of ways — based not on prescribed practices, but on methods that evolve organically based on how a child's brain actually works.
And as Wallace notes, since most children now are highly adept at using touch-screen technology, working with iPads is something of a no-brainer. (Pun intended.)
"We're looking at ways that we can individualize classroom learning where kids are working with a device like an iPad," he says. "Based on what we know about their brains and how they take in information, we can individualize the information that [teachers] give them through the iPad. ... Some kids are better learners with visual information, and some kids are better learners with auditory information. So one of things we can do is take the neuroscience about these children and tailor a learning environment that's best suited to the way that they optimally take in information."
With a science-based approach, the program should open new doors in the education of special-needs students. Instead of simply placing developmentally disabled pupils in remedial classes, graduates from the new Vanderbilt program will take a special-needs pupil's neurology into account, applying a range of tools and methods to gain the most effective results.
But the biggest question for Wallace is how long it will take for mainstream education to adopt these novel methods in classrooms.
"My guess is, we're probably looking at 15 or 20 years before this really becomes the model for the traditional classroom," he says. "But I expect this to be the rule, not the exception."
Since its inception 42 years ago, Oasis Center has grown into one of the nation's leading youth-serving organizations, providing support and direction for young Nashvillians facing difficult life circumstances. In 2010, Oasis made great strides with its most at-risk clients using neurofeedback — a process that uses noninvasive sensors attached to the head to read the brain's activity. Results have been so positive that Oasis has founded NeuroClarity, a business enterprise that offers neurofeedback services to the public, regardless of age. Here's how it works: While a licensed mental health clinician monitors your brain activity, you watch a monitor — very similar to a video game — that helps relax you. The goal: To train your brain to operate at a more relaxed and attentive state. It's particularly recommended for people who would like help overcoming anxiety, depression, stress, trauma or ADD/ADHD.
With all the heat surrounding charter schools lately — "They're the best thing since individually packaged cheese slices!" "They're destroying cheese as we know it!" — Nashville Preparatory Academy has concerned itself with shedding some light.
In fact, the charter school is shining brilliantly. In the most recent school year, Nashville Prep posted some of the highest Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program scores in the state — though it's now only in its second year and still without a permanent home. (For now, the school remains holed up in TSU's Avon Williams Building.)
So how did they beat MNPS and every other Nashville charter school in math (79), science (78.75), social studies (97.5) and language arts (63.75)? According to Ravi Gupta, Nashville Prep's founder and director, it's about combining old-school and new-school approaches.
"We arrange our day such that every scholar in our building every two days is given an opportunity for one-on-one tutoring, and that's an old-school innovation," he says. "And then we have technologies that we use to track data, technologies to send information to parents ... and computer-based learning."
The school has found success implementing Kickboard, an advanced data tracker that atomizes every detail of a student's academic performance with astonishing accuracy. But Gupta maintains that the cause of Nashville Prep's achievements is decidedly low-tech.
"I think the greatest computer-based program in the world is not going to be as strong as an excellent teacher, which we've been fortunate to have," he says.
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