MTI Virtual Reality Exhibition # 1

This Spring, as the Innovator-In-Residence for Media & Technology Innovation (MTI), I curated our first virtual reality (VR) exhibition in the ENGAGE VR application. In pursuit of our goal of promoting the use of immersive digital storytelling technologies, NUIT and Media & Technology Innovation will be developing rotating virtual exhibitions to engage Northwestern University students, faculty and staff. We will be collaborating with members of the NU community to digitize some of their favorite objects and curate them within dynamic and interactive VR environments. To accomplish this, the project made use of digitization techniques including 3d photogrammetry and modeling, videography and digital curation to produce the inaugural MTI virtual exhibition in the ENGAGE VR metaverse.

Three members of the Northwestern University community, Dr. Amal Hassan Fadlalla, Zoran Ilić and Dr. Mary Weismantel, graciously lended their objects for digitization. Dr. Fadlalla, a University of Michigan Professor, contributed a Hadendowa Knife which she collected in Sudan during the late 1990’s. Fadlalla received her PhD in Anthropology at Northwestern University and donated the knife to the former Chair of the department, Tim Earle. I first encountered the object during an exploration of the Chair’s Office in 1810 Hinman. In addition to its stunning craftsmanship, the knife also encompassed a beautiful narrative of gratitude and exchange. The Anthropology Department stored the knife with a letter penned by Fadlalla in March 1999, which tells the story of the knife’s creation as a gift for Tim Earle and his assistance in helping Fadlalla obtain residency status to pursue graduate studies in the United States. The digital nature of the exhibition allows for audience members to approach the letter, read Fadlalla’s words and intimately experience the materiality of the 3d model.

The exhibition also includes a model of a 1952 edition Croatian Pinocchio Book. This object was donated by Zoran Ilić, Senior Academic Systems Engineer for NUIT and a vital contributor to the production of the exhibition. Ilić and myself conducted photogrammetry on each object in the Emerging Technologies Lab which allowed for the creation of 3d models that can be interacted with in VR. Ilić brought the Pinocchio book to the US from Croatia in the early 2000’s and I was able to interview him on the importance of the object within his family’s cultural heritage. He also took the time to explain the uniqueness of his collection and some of the ways in which the Croatian version of the classic story differs from the popularized Disney-fied edition.

The third object of the exhibition is a Peruvian ceramic Trujillo beer bottle collected by Dr. Mary Weismantel, professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. This beautifully rich object was contextualized in a short interview with Weismantel, where she explains the symbolism, politics and anti-racism embedded within bottle’s creation. Weismantel is a preeminent scholar of the Andes – learn more about her work and the cultural context of the ceramic bottle in her book Cholas and Pishtacos: stories of race and sex in the Andes.

This project was a pleasure to create. As our first attempt, we were both inspired by the potential of these technologies and also frustrated by some of the difficulties that digitization and photogrammetry present. In the future MTI hopes to improve our processes of data capture and the resolution of our models, through the use of light diffusers, polarizers and tweaks within our studio lab setup. We are also looking forward to hosting the owners of lended objects within the VR application (from wherever they may be in the world) so that they themselves can share their stories and memories with a live VR audience.

I am extremely grateful for the time and patience of the object lenders, and the labor of NUIT staff such as Stephen Poon, Nate Bartlett and Zoran Ilić who assisted with the production of the exhibition. If you are a student, staff or faculty member at Northwestern University and would like to see your one of your favorite objects in a Virtual Reality exhibition, feel free to send an email to

360 VR in the Classroom


The Emerging Technologies Lab in collaboration with Kellogg School of Management had the opportunity to record a 360 video tour of a thriving and growing business as part of a classroom case study. We were able to record inside a Patel Brothers grocery store and create a VR tour throughout the space, showcasing its variety of produce, spices, and other specialty foods.

We hope this can lead to further classroom experimentation and exploration for immersive learning! 

Creative Futures of Generative AI

In September of 2022, nearly two years after its launch, OpenAI made their flagship AI image generation platform Dall-E available to the public. Alongside competitors such as Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, Dall-E can generate original images in an endless amount of styles and genres with just a one-line text prompt fed to it by the user. With public discourse already primed by justified concern over deepfakes, artists, writers, and other creatives baulked at the implications: why commission an artwork when you can just ask Dall-E to make it for you with the taps of a few keys?

As an art historian, this pairing of technological innovation and public morality crisis was familiar to me. It happened with the printing press in the 15th century, and again with photography in the 19th. Who would buy a portrait when you could capture the exact likeness of a person with the technology of a camera? With generative AI, however, this historical precedent was complicated by the technology’s own inherent ability to produce original works with minimal human intervention. Whereas a camera requires lighting, focus, staging, and compositional direction from the artist in order to produce a photo, all Dall-E requires is a sentence to produce wildly variable images. What does this expanded field of creative technologies mean for arts practice of the future?

Enter Helicon, Northwestern University’s on-campus literary magazine. Established nearly 45 years ago by three poetry students, Helicon is a storied institution of literary and artistic merit representing some of the University’s best creatives. I reached out to the magazine’s editor, Lily Glaubinger, with a proposal: bring the editorial board to the Emerging Technologies Lab for a writing workshop, and let’s see what original works can come from experimenting with this newly accessible technology. How would our writers use Dall-E2? What challenges would they face? How would generative AI influence their writing practice? Our contributors— Ann Gaither, Lily Glaubinger, Natalie Jarrett, Skye Tarshis, and Alivia Wynn— were eager to explore the implications of AI image generation for their own creative practices.

Lily Glaubinger

On a Saturday afternoon in January, Helicon’s editorial board arrived at the Emerging Technologies Lab to use Dall-E2 for the first time. We began with a short discussion of the state of generative AI in the field, a demo of how Dall-E2’s interface worked, and tips on how to tailor a prompt for the best results. We also discussed some of the major pitfalls and ethical concerns of generative AI, ranging from its tendency to depict femme-coded bodies in overtly sexualized ways, to its statistical likelihood of defaulting to white and lighter skin tones. By discussing such obstacles at the beginning of the writing workshop, we flagged such context as critical to our writers’ understanding of the tool at hand. Though generative AI can produce endless variations of images, text, sound, and even video at the simple request of a well-worded prompt, those outcomes are inflected by the biases and blind spots of the coders who build the structures that inform how a generative AI makes decisions. By knowing this from the start, we hoped to encourage our writers to think critically and adaptably about how they used the tool over the course of the workshop.

Ann Gaither

The resulting text-and-image pieces, now on display at the front of the Main Library, are as beautiful as they are strange, uncanny as they are familiar, and humorous as they are disturbing. Each writer took a different approach to their use of Dall-E2; some specified clear descriptions with defined aesthetic parameters, while others fed their original prose into Dall-E2’s text box and let chance play out in ones and zeros. Some embraced the absurdity of the resulting images, others made hypotheses about how to produce certain types of images and experimented accordingly. In their exit interviews, almost every writer remarked on both the usefulness of the tool for the ideating process of creative endeavors, and their surprise at the limits of Dall-E2’s scope. The future of generative AI in creative practice and industry continues to take shape; it is our imperative to make sure that shape forms responsibly and ethically.

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