We’re the best-kept secret in town,” laughs Dr. JoAnn Kuchera-Morin just before opening the plain door down from her office and into the AlloSphere. It’s clear she means that both she and her brainchild have been unfairly incognito in this town. Kuchera-Morin has spent nearly a decade heading an innovative graduate division that gathers great young minds together at UCSB to marry, as she sometimes puts it, “the real to the unreal,” the hard sciences with the fine arts.
Her efforts have drawn international notice. Kuchera-Morin gave a TED Talk centered around the macro and micro wonders playing in the marvelous machine we are now inside. And its notoriety should be even more obvious. Entering a three-story sphere inside the plain walls of Elings Hall at UCSB is best compared to being in Cerebro, the brain-visualizing lair of Marvel’s Doctor X. But Matt Wright, who is Kuchera-Morin’s right hand, likes to point out that Cerebro has a small promontory viewing spot, ample only for a wheelchair-bound mutant superhero, while the AlloSphere’s midsection is crossed by a metal catwalk with smart handrails and glass sides that could handle 20 mortal truth seekers. It’s a secret wonder.
In the semi-dark sits a table with computer terminals and joysticks. “There are 16 computers in here speaking to 26 projectors,” says Kuchera-Morin, and all around the catwalk are projected patterns overlapping like Venn diagrams on a wire-mesh screen. We don thick glasses—which Wright explains open and close in microseconds, enabling us to see immersive 3D images—and we are in it. In this case, floating meshes in globular shapes being “attacked” by particles that set the globes rippling. Then they “fly me” into an artificial world, an exo-planet, created by teams of student scientists postulating a quick formation and destruction of a theoretical ecosystem. Then we’re in the brain of a colleague, based on a real MRI rendered so large we can roam it while it sings a song to us, indicating data excitations. As we pass through a wall of cranium, I swear I can almost feel the passage—a lifetime of moviegoing never approximated this synesthesia. “We have windows within windows within windows and worlds within worlds within worlds,” says Kuchera-Morin.
That’s the artist speaking, but she has a well-developed scientific side too. “It’s just a device,” she says, when I ask about the AlloSphere’s origins. She’s not exactly evasive about the sphere’s history; it’s just hard to get her two sides engaged in mere narrative and every time she embarks on the history, we end up enmeshed in metaphors and purposes. Kuchera-Morin sees the development of her device in the same complicated way her device shows her the backgrounds of reality. The sphere doesn’t differ much from a microscope, a tool meant to bring us face to face with things we can only imagine viewing. She built the “device” her way, to distinguish it from other similar immersive theaters, according to Wright. Those others, called CAVEs, are cubes (flat screens; the AlloSphere’s are curved) with three to six projectors meant primarily for entertainment.
The AlloSphere began, with a lot of colleague input, more than a decade ago to help scientists and engineers visualize complex (and often theoretical) constructions. Once designed, however, the problem of fitting it into an architectural space proved impossible, even with the help of architect Robert Venturi, who built the sphere’s home. Many modifications were made. But in 2007 the AlloSphere, with two curved screens and a virtually echo-free sound system, became functional.
Meanwhile, the mathematical languages that allow people to use computer graphics were also evolving. “People have no idea how difficult it is to simulate something,” Kuchera-Morin says. Today its applications are just beginning to be addressed, but she points out that as our data-producing instrumentation (like microscopes) become more complex, they have the unfortunate side effect of making the data even more complicated. Her hope is that scientists can use the sphere to slice things like molecular lattices into accurate representations, then sit back and get some “AHA!” moments of discovery.
But it ought to work for artists too. “I always tell them that if you want to make something that doesn’t exist, you ought to know well what does exist,” she says. “This is how the field of analog electronic music went forward: the musicians used the tool and worked side by side with the technologists to develop the tools in the context of creative use.”
The musician imagery is apt. Kuchera-Morin first came to UCSB in the pre-home-computer years of the early 1980s, not as an engineer or as a particle theoretician, but as a composer of electronic music. Born in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, she spent most of her young life in blue-collar South Florida. Her father was a television repairman and her mother ran a toy store, which also seems apt. Kuchera-Morin put herself through junior college and Florida State studying composition and then into the prestigious Eastman School of Music with sheer chutzpah.
Fascinated by electronic music, but untrained in its technical intricacies, her first post-college job was at UCSB, but when she showed up at the music department, they sent her over to engineering because they had computers. A bit between worlds from the start, Kuchera-Morin moved from the production of electronic music to the founding of CREATE (Center for Research in Art and Technology). She also figured in the founding of MAT (Media Arts Technology program), which intersects with the NanoSystems program in ways that not even brilliant Matt Wright completely understands, although he can pilot the AlloSphere and helms an electronic music ensemble that combines programmed music with improvisation.
“I’m crazy, but I’m functional,” says Kuchera-Morin—few would argue.
Mostly it’s the way she talks. When asked a simple question, she will likely respond with an impassioned speech about her mission in language that shuttles between “heuristics” and “the elevation of the arts up to the level of the sciences,” which sounds a bit like raving, but is firmly grounded in science. She understands the underpinnings too—Kuchera-Morin not only conceptualized and developed the AlloSphere, but also raised the money for it. And it was precisely her dizzying speech that attracted the TED folks to give her a seven-minute slideshow forum for people who paid $7,000 to attend sessions.
She also knows her place in academia. “I know that if I do a wrong visualization, I could still take this out and play Museum of Modern Art. But if one of my scientistsdoes a wrong visualization, their careers could be ruined.” Her art form is a mission, even though some of her colleagues impatiently wait for an easy access to the double dome, which costs roughly $3,000 per hour every time it’s fired up.
“I’m so close,” Kuchera-Morin says, sounding more like an obsessed scientist than a crazy person. “I’m so close that I can feel it.”
Meanwhile she’s hoping her hometown might be less of a stranger to her and her “device.”
She also remains a big fan of the college, in spite of having to move political mountains to gain funding for her projects. It’s a campus still emerging from its old-party identities into the forefronts of engineering and scientific research domains: the beachside school made significant breakthroughs in such major areas as plate tectonics, some of the earliest work on the Internet, the cloud and blue laser technology. Kuchera-Morin credits a lot of the great work done there on the spirit of interdisciplinary studies fostered by the administration. The composer’s office is in a major center of nanotechnology and within yards of the Institute of Theoretical Physics in a school where barriers are down for the enablement of discoveries. She’s gotten big-school offers, but she likes UCSB.
“The AlloSphere is our studio, our platform. I’m not about to leave this place. I love this place.”
Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.