Of Myths and Mythology

DQI Bureau
New Update

Ancient art-work and paintings lie strewn around, traditional pots, jackets,

musical instruments litter the place, there’s a glimpse of Indian heritage in

almost everything you see. Clearly, Ranjit Makkuni’s lab looks like anything

but a lab.


And Makkuni himself looks like the archetypal artist. Dressed in an ethnic

kurta pyjama and jacket, he greets you with a warm smile, and you you wonder

whether this man can actually be a scientist... But all your doubts vanish when

he speaks, and very passionately too, about his latest venture. "Indians

have been doing extremely well with development work in the Silicon Valley, but

the irony is that most of the work remains either unnoticed or the credit goes

to some suave, glib-speaking multinational company. I have always wanted to

create something that is our very own," he says.

A leading research scholar at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the

US, Makkuni carries with him decades of PARC’s multimedia expertise in

developing tools for cultural learning. He and his team of designers are

presently engaged in putting together a thoroughly interactive set of exhibits

as part of ‘The Crossing Project.’

Blending art and tech

Taking communication beyond desktop-mouse and static documents, the project

demonstrates futuristic forms of information access tools and aims to open up

the next wave of digital document experience by creating a ‘living document’.

The idea is to shift away from regular objects such as keyboards or monitors to

digital presentation in 3D, with a more dynamic form of surround sight and

sound. The interface gadgets, when held and touched, unfold any info that you

may want.


"The not-so-tech-savvy usually get daunted when they see complicated

hi-tech instruments," Makkuni explains. "So we have used objects that

most Indians are already familiar with. This, then, can appeal to a wider range

of people and they can learn from them." These new high-touch portals

include a specially made wearable coat, the knowledge-egg, paper-multimedia and

other user interfaces like tilt-based browsing, gestural interfaces and

multi-level physical/virtual documents.

The theme of the launch project is ‘The Crossing–Living, Dying and

Transformation in Benaras’. The name ‘Crossing’ comes from the Sanskrit

word tirtha, meaning a pilgrimage site and by extension a cosmic crossing point

and sacred place for transformation. The exposition offers a rich learning

experience to the student community, IT experts, scientists, technologists, the

art and culture fraternity, as also the public at large. It displays the

environment of Benaras–the ghats, temples, shivlings, a flowing river,

priests, cremation points–that you want to see, to learn more about the

mythical from, philosophical aspects that are associated with them.

Makkuni, also a sitar player and disciple of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, has deep

roots in traditional art and his passion for innovative research in multimedia

technology help him bridge the technology-art divide. "As the birth-place

of major world religions and rich cultural heritage of classical and folk art

forms, India serves as the best experimental lab to bring hi-tech digital

documentation and traditional art together for building the future technology of

learning," he says.


Makkuni has specially set up a media lab of Xerox PARC in New Delhi to

facilitate this project. PARC researchers, together with robotics/embedded

systems experts from the Indian Institute of Technology, designers from National

Institute of Information Technology, the National School of Design, and with a

network of museums including IGNCA, New Delhi; NGMA, Mumbai; Asia Society, New

York–all are working on the exhibits.

A visionary approach

Makkuni has been part of the System Concept Lab of PARC since 1985 and was

involved in the visionary group that developed the world’s first graphic user

interface. He pioneered explorations in computer-aided design and developed an

interesting research space of active learning at PARC. The active learning

projects help developing cutting-edge technology for cultural learning


He has also been part of the team that has explored new forms of multimedia

access to content. The invention of Hyperpaper, a medium that explores paper as

an interface to multimedia imagery is only one futuristic example. His creation–the

electronic sketchbook of Tibetan Thangka painting–was displayed at the Asian

Art Museum, San Francisco in 1989. It was described as the first example of

computer-based cultural learning tool. Closer home, in 1998, Ranjit collaborated

with India’s top scholars and designers at the Indira Gandhi Center for the

Arts to develop the Gita Govinda multimedia experience.


Founded in 1970, Xerox PARC, in its 31-year legacy of innovations, has played

a distinct role in introducing transformative technologies for future businesses

and is widely known for revolutionary innovations in personal computing. The

Crossing Project is also in tune with its vision of revolutionizing the digital

document and the knowledge-sharing process.

Instead of this type of experiment originating in the West and traveling to

India, Xerox PARC and Xerox in India decided that such technologies should

originate in India–thus was born the lab in Delhi. And the show is just


Shweta Verma–Dataquest