On the surface, Professor John Craig Freeman’s augmented reality installation Imagining the U.S./Mexico Border: Migration Stories has more to do with political science than natural science.
But Freeman, a public artist who teaches in the Visual and Media Arts Department, and School of Communication Dean Raul Reis believe that augmented reality (AR) and its close cousin, virtual reality (VR), have vast potential for telling the most pressing stories of science—climate change, public health, biotechnology, renewable energy, etc.—in a way that absorbs and engages the public.
Freeman will give a talk on Imagining the U.S./Mexico Border during Communicating Science (ComSciCon) 2018, a national workshop series to advance storytelling in the “hard” sciences. Founded by graduate students at Harvard University and MIT, and organized by graduate students across the country, the series is being hosted by Emerson College June 14–15.
“If you [want to] express complex scientific ideas to a general public, the most effective way of doing that is by telling a compelling story,” Freeman said. “Otherwise, people who aren’t familiar with scientific terms won’t follow it.”
Jon Honea, assistant professor of environmental studies in Emerson’s Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, is Emerson’s point person for ComSciCon. He said as an institution focused on the arts and communication, Emerson is a natural to host the conference and help bridge the divide between cold, hard facts and the public imagination.
As scientists go through their rigorous training and become more and more fluent in their own specialized lexicon, Honea said, they sometimes forget (or never learn) how to explain their work to laypeople.
“They could probably talk about groceries and politics, but they haven’t had practice talking about their [areas of] expertise,” Honea said. “[Better communication] just makes their work relevant; it helps them get support for research. Also, most [scientists] are doing work [in order] to inform the public.”
In Freeman’s AR installation, viewers download an app that is geo-located to a spot on Boston Common. When they arrive at the destination, they can train their mobile device to the spot and see an actual stretch of the U.S./Mexico border superimposed on their screens, with people on either side of the border fence. They can also hear migrants telling their stories, which Reis recorded along with Freeman's images in August 2017, in partnership with the Rediscovering Rosarito Global Pathways project.
Freeman said up until recently, storytelling has always been a linear event: every story has had a beginning, middle, and end. With AR/VR, the parameters are not linear, but spatial, he said.
“It opens the possibility of the audience entering the narrative from multiple entry points and navigating the storyline in different directions,” Freeman said. “As an author of an immersive story, I have no way of anticipating what order the user is going to enter the narrative in.
“The result of that is the meaning of the narrative is emergent rather than cumulative. Meaning emerges through the experience of being there and moving through the space, rather than a kind of accumulation of knowledge.”
By applying this kind of storytelling to science, the public not only has a novel way of interacting with and understanding information, but it could lead to people, possibly even other scientists, making new connections and understanding new meanings, he said.
As facts are increasingly seen as “alternative” among some, it becomes all the more urgent that accurate data and research is made accessible and digestible to as many people as possible, and Emerson is well positioned to help with that, said Dean Reis.
“I really see [Emerson] playing a part—in the city of Boston, especially, where you have different parts of the scientific community—to advance this communication of science to a public in a way that really adheres to the basic tenets we have here for storytelling and communication,” said Reis, who majored in physics as an undergraduate student and worked as a science reporter for 20 years.
“I think we have a role to play…in terms of really translating science in a way that preserves the accuracy, the ethics, and the discovery process,” he said.