Of Myths and Mythology

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

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