Christopher Kawell

Dancing Snowmen
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Yesterday we did a lot in the Unity game engine (including a dancing snowman, hence the title). Unity is not the easiest of programs to learn due to the large number of aspects that go into game design. Shading, coding, texturing, physics, design, and even calculus play key roles in creating a game in Unity, and thus there was a lot of head banging during the Unity courses. I get the impression that people have mixed feeling towards Unity after our lessons, but most of us will have to use it even more during our stay in Ames, so I’ll be interested to see how that goes. I for one enjoy the game engine, but that’s partly due to the fact that I’ve used it before.

After we finished our last Unity course, we all chose a subject in which we would like a deeper understanding. I chose shaders in Unity, mostly because it’s an area I know little about and find interesting, but also because we get to put our projects into the C6 at the end of the summer!

As for our research, rapid prototyping has proven to be far less rapid than I expected. I expected that I would have quite a few different user interface prototypes by now, but I only have two. Basically, I like them and can’t think of how to make them better. Of course I’m sure they could both use a lot of work, but I can’t think of what that is. In the meantime I’ve been trying to watch a lot more recordings of Traffic Incident Managers’ screens to give me a more intuitive understanding of their current processes.

My (extremely detailed) UI models designed for three monitors.

User Interfaces
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After weeks of lit review, meetings, and TIMELI orientation, we are finally starting to prototype our user interface. The plan is as follows: each one of us (Kate, Sofia, and I) will each sketch a large quantity of UI prototypes. The first of these prototypes will be simply to get us thinking. But as we continue to remodel and study the TIM processes, theoretically our prototypes will get better and more intuitive. After a few days of this rapid prototyping, all three of us will get back together and compare what we have in our individual prototypes. At this point we will be able to start narrowing down our ideas to a select few. I’m not completely sure what the next step will be after that, but brainstorming is always fun and I’m happy to have a clear mission right now.

Outside of work life, we all celebrated Father’s Day without any fathers. This was disappointing of course, but we ate lasagna (thanks Emma!), watched Wonder Woman (a fathers day classic of course), and had Austin play honorary father for the day, so it turned out alright!

Lasagna!

Austin as dad

I’m also getting the hang of bouldering. I can’t say I’m very good at it yet, but I’m definitely noticing a steady trend of getting better and I can do a few routes on the bouldering wall that used to seem impossible. Finally a gym exercise that’s fun!

 

A Lot of Stuff. No, Really
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Ok so I think it’s high time I gave an update. My last time was Friday I think and it was a post about Thursday, so I have a lot of catching up to do!

On Friday, my research team and I went down to Des Moines to check out Iowa DOT’s main facilities (Iowa’s Department of Transportation). Since we’re trying to make their system better, we figured we should probably witness firsthand what their current system looks like. Upon arriving, we were taken through a back door of the building (which is also a DMV) and down some steps into a large room with nine massive screens on one wall. Each screen was large enough to hold eight different traffic video feeds at one time comfortably, and in front of these sat four Traffic Incident Managers (TIMs). As big and high tech as it was, it was hard to believe that these four people were able to monitor all traffic incidents in all of Iowa.

After we had our tour and talked to the people working there, we headed back to Ames for another lesson in SolidWorks. I know we don’t ALL enjoy CAD modeling (and I’m not entirely sold on it myself), but I can say that we seem to have learned it very quickly! Our teacher was very surprised at our willingness to learn and our abilities after just two days of SolidWorks. Next up to learn: Unity.

After work, I went to Bike World, which sells you-guessed-it and everything that you might need for them. Thanks to them, I have a water bottle on my bike and a chain that doesn’t squeak! 😀

Friday ended with Sushi, Natalie, and I climbing on a roof, climbing on a train track, sorta almost getting hit by a train, definitely getting hit by ants, and storm-chasing. Pretty uneventful. Here’s a selection of the lightning pics I’ve gotten so far here in Ames:

Saturday started early at the farmers market. It was a small market, but they had everything from Amish baskets and chicken pillows, to vegetables and tacos (which were quite close to true Mexican style, according to Alfredo). However, one of the vendors told me that Des Moines has a much bigger market, supposedly the second largest in the country! I think I’ll head down there at some point to check it out.

Chicken Pillows!

And of course we stopped in at the music store.

We ended Saturday with a big burger party, which everyone came too! Masashi made the burgers (thanks Sushi!), I made the corn salad, and everyone chipped in a few necessities to make our picnic a blast! We even convinced a now friend of ours to come over and perform on his Melodica (don’t worry; we paid him in burgers).

Sam, with his melodica.

Today, I have dabbled. I’ve read, worked on a new piano piece, played Pokemon Go, Civ 6, Minecraft… Also, I’ve eaten three bowls of ice cream. I knew buying a gallon was a bad idea…

 

Aristotle’s Physics

The title of this post is a little weird, but it makes sense. ish. Just bare with me.

At work we focused on SolidWorks nearly the whole time. SolidWorks is a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software, which is used for creating virtual prototypes of physical objects. Unlike in Maya which is free-form modeling, SolidWorks requires that everything you make be physically possible. For this reason, our teacher (a PhD student) considered it to be almost more of a philosophy than a science. (Get the title now? physical design/philosophy = Aristotle’s Physics? nevermind)

I thought I was going to hate CAD designing after free-form modeling, but I’m actually starting to like it! I get a little frustrated with the lack of exactness in Maya/Blender and the “free-form”-ness causes me to get sloppy and cut corners, but SolidWorks forces me to do everything correctly. Nothing good will come out of SolidWorks if you don’t take the time to do it correctly.

 

Traffic and Pokémon
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Yesterday was quite action packed. Ok, most people probably don’t think of watching over an hour of a Traffic Incident Manager’s monitor as action packed, but there was enough going on to make me exhausted afterwards. This TIM, whose computer monitors other members of our team recorded, had over ten windows open at times and was constantly doing things. I won’t go into great detail, but the conclusion of our video viewing session was me feeling rather apprehensive about this whole constructing UIs business. It’s far more complex than I expected! I guess we’ll just have to mount this one small step at a time.

After work, our whole intern group got together for some light painting. I enjoy creating most any type of art, and even though many of our attempts at light painting were lacking in artistic perfection, it was still a lot of fun!

Here’s me running away from a massive T-Rex

After light painting, I spent, well… a considerable time Pokémon hunting on campus. My brother notified me of a massive Pokémon Go event happening this week due to the game’s one year anniversary. Well, I misunderstood him and thought it was only for a day, so I spent FAR more time than necessary trying to catch some Pokémon I didn’t yet have. Oh well. There are worse things in life I guess. On the bright side the sun stays up until around 9:00 here, so I didn’t find myself in any dark, sketchy situations.

Maya, Maya, Maya
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We started this week off with basically a full day of Autodesk Maya training. We had roughly 3 to 4 hours of Maya class time, but we didn’t have much else scheduled for the rest of the day, so all of us dedicated most of our time after our class sessions to experimenting with Maya. Maya is a 3D animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering software (to quote their website) which would usually be almost $1500 dollars annually for a subscription. We get it free at the VRAC thankfully! (not to mention a three year student subscription on my pc)

For our classes, we were introduced to the basic functionality of Maya and then were encouraged to get creative with a few basic models. After just a few hours of tinkering though, all of our models looked anything but basic! What started out as a simple farm scene had morphed into townhouses, castles, and zeppelins. By the end of the day, we had all blown away our teacher by how quickly we had taken to the new piece of software. I think it’s because 3D modeling is so fun, honestly. With Maya, anyone with a just shallow understanding of its tools and a small spark of creativity can create basically anything. (and also after a week of learning C++, Maya almost felt simple!)

 

 

 

With Maya, this boring image can become…

 

…this life-like oil drum!

 

 

 

 

A Weekend to Remember
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Saturday

On Saturday, we all got up a little earlier than usual to go to Iowa Valley Adventure Challenge Course, a team-building high ropes course in Marshalltown IA a few minutes outside Ames. We spent most of the day there, doing team building and confidence growing challenges and had a blast! I won’t go into great depth about it in this blog though, because I’m sure my fellow researchers are rehashing much of the same experience in their blogs (so make sure to check those out!). I’ll just say that I really enjoyed it, and I think we all found ourselves overcoming challenges we shortly before thought impossible!

Thanks to Natalie Blodgett for the awesome photos!

 

Sunday

Sunday was a lot less crazy (well, it ended with me eating a pancake with chicken, cookies, and ghost pepper salsa, but apart from that, not crazy). I spent most of the afternoon reading at a park. It’s so hot up here, but the humidity’s not so bad yet, so I was able to sit for a few hours in the shade with minimal discomfort.

I then rounded off the day with a wonderful sunset! (oh yeah, and the ghost pepper pancake, but I think a sunset is a slightly better way to end a blog post)

 

User Interfaces and a new sport
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Yesterday (6/8) was very research intensive. Some members in our research team gave us undergrads a bunch of research papers to flip through, so we spent most of the day learning about Computer Human Interaction and user interface (UI) design. I found the subject of how to properly format a UI very fascinating and the articles sparked a couple ideas of my own that I hope to implement in our project. UI design is heavy in psychology, a subject which I have wanted to study but have never had the time for, so I’m really looking forward to our more in-depth research later this summer.

After work, we spent an awful lot of time discussing/debating/arguing over what our REU t-shirts will look like. I think if we invest as much blood, sweat, and tears into our research as we did into t-shirt design , we should all be quite successful!

(Oh and for anyone reading this from outside the VRAC at IA State, my research team is Celia Loya and Katherine Atwell. That might make our posts a little more intelligible)

The Woods of Ames
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After work yesterday, I intended to go to the gym. However, I forgot my keys and wallet. Turns out, there’s not much one can do without them, apart from exploring. Since I was now locked out of my room with this as my only option, I hopped on my bike and rode aimlessly out of Freddy. I ended up finding a really cool forest path, small and uneven, but fun to explore.

 

 

I had no idea there was so much wooded area here! It reminded me of home. The trail got so difficult though, I had to continue on foot for the last few minutes before returning to my bike and heading back to campus.

 

I don’t know where I found the energy (I guess having absolutely nothing else to do helps), but once back I proceeded to explore the campus. My first destination was the Durham Center for Computation and Communication, because the replica of the Atanasoff–Berry computer (the first automatic electronic digital computer) was supposedly located there. No luck though! The replica is currently on loan in California. It was still cool to see the display room and vacuum tubes, and ride by Physics Hall, the AB Computer’s birthplace.

 

🙁

Physics Hall, the birthplace of the AB Computer

Those glass things are vacuum tubes and I think the big cylinder is a memory drum

After a little more exploring, I headed back to Freddy and one of my roommates was there to let me in, in time to see the sunset from my window! Sure it was a slow day at the VRAC, but it ended well!

Just something I found in my travels

 

Ничего не много произошло сегодня
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Мы не очень много сегодня. Мы имели наш снято и мы узнали C++, но не так много на самом деле произошло. Мы не можем даже получить в наш проект в глубине до тех пор, пока мы утверждаются Советом IRB. Ну, хорошо. Я угадываю что я будет просто сделать пост в google перевод Русский.

Of Smart Tech and my Future
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Yesterday I set up a Smart Outlet in my room. It took a little while to connect it to the IA State Wi-Fi, but now that it’s set up I’m able to walk into my room and say “Alexa, turn on the lights.” I hear an “OK” coming from my Echo Dot and my desk lamp turns on. It’s so cool! Last night I told Alexa to turn off the lights as I climbed into bed and then woke up this morning to it automatically turning back on at my specified time. I never thought personal AI home assistants would be within my price range this early on, but it was very affordable and I must say I’m loving my Sci-Fi bedroom! 😀

Today, Dr. James Oliver, director of the VRAC talked to us about grad school. He first gave us a run down in his personal experience in school and then proceeded to explain how grad school works, the value of a Masters or PhD, and how the industry fits into our school credentials. I found him very interesting and enlightening! Only last semester did I start to seriously think about grad school and only last week did I think about a PhD, so hearing his tips was very helpful!

 

A New Week with New Experiences
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First off, a recap of the weekend: I spent far more time than I meant in virtual reality. Since we have access to two Oculus Rifts in our apartments, it’s pretty hard to make my self do research instead. But on the bright side, I did make an interesting discovery; when one stay in a VR environment for a few hours straight, one experiences some interesting handicaps upon returning to the real world. For example, I had to pay extra attention to not bang my arms into walls and tables because I had gotten used to the world around me having no physical pushback.

However, I also spent some time in the real world this weekend. On Sunday we all went to a nonprofit a few minutes away from the apartments to do some work for them. This work was not mandatory, but the deal was that if we helped them out for a couple hours, they would allow us to use over the summer some of the bikes they repair. Thus, I found myself planting raspberry bushes, something I never expected to do, much less do during an REU research program!

Today however, I am back at work. I’m still very uncertain as to what direction our research will take us, but by the end of this week I should have a far better understanding.

Some of our time today has been spent learning the programming language C++. Honestly, it was a fairly boring section for me because I have a good deal of experience in object-oriented programming, but I did learn a few interesting facts about C++ of which I was unaware and I expect the class sessions on the language later this week will give me a far greater challenge.

First Friday: Research and Artificial Reality
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We started the day with a little training on using research databases. IA State has access to far more databases than I’ve ever seen at Samford! I think the hardest part will be to figure out which databases will help me most in my research. I’ll admit, this research bit sounds pretty boring, but I know how to speed read and skim read pretty well and after we have a few classes on how to properly read a journal or research article, I’m sure it won’t be as bad as it currently feels.

After this, and a little Myers Briggs acclimation, we were given a tour of VRAC (Virtual Reality Application Center), which is where we will be doing our research. In one day, I got first-hand access to the greatest pieces of technology in VR, AR, and CAVE. I am amazed at how these fairly rudimentary and early-stage attempts at artificial reality are capable of making their users feel. Just a combination of sensors, screens, and controllers could make me feel I was on the USS Ronald Reagan, fighting my way through robot infested streets, or just surrounded by holograms now appearing in the VRAC facility itself. These are indeed the early days of VR and AR and I can’t wait to see what future research and design will do for these emerging interfaces.

Day One
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A mixture of excitement and apprehension. Apprehension because I now find myself in a faraway state among people I’ve never met before in an environment I’ve never seen before. Excitement because this new environment and these new people offer a wide variety of resources and possibilities. I come from a university of mainly humanities majors and my computer science department is very small. Needless to say, my access to state-of-the art resources has been rather lacking. As interested as I am in artificial intelligence and virtual reality, I have never really been able to experience much of either first-hand, but I expect this summer to offer me the experiences for which I have been longing!