Mapping drones, touch-learning math apps for the blind, liquid-filled records and more 

Innovations 2012

Innovations 2012
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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.


Little Wing

An archaeologist and an engineer walk into an Andean ruins — and launch a flying drone to map it in 3D
By Steve Haruch
click to enlarge The SUAVe at rest - PHOTO: MICHAEL W. BUNCH

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.


Axis of Equals

An app for the Android tablet helps blind students learn math through touch and sound
By J.R. Lind

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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."

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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."


Art Appreciation

The Frist Center's gallery guide for iPad adds depth and context
By Laura Hutson
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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.


Skill at Will

Community-building collaborators The Skillery and Brick Factory aren't connected, but have achieved a kind of creativity-spawning symbiosis
By Laura Hutson
click to enlarge Brick Factory - ERIC ENGLAND

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.

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