by Mark Fritz
Besides having one of the most unusual names of any American institution of higher learning, Ball State University is also well-known for its communications/broadcasting curriculum. As technologies in that field have advanced from analog to digital, Ball State has advanced along with them. Located in Muncie, Indiana, the school currently offers an innovative communications curriculum that includes courses in “digital expression” and a Masters Degree program in Digital Storytelling. And now thanks to its “iCommunication” initiative, Ball State hopes to become mid-America’s preeminent center for digital media research and testing.
An ambitious and far-ranging program already underway, the iCommunication initiative is funded by $20 million from Lilly Endowment, Inc. The cornerstone of this initiative is Ball State’s new Center for Media Design (CMD). The center’s director, Dave Ferguson, likes to refer to the center as the iCommunication initiative’s “engine” or “nerve center.” The CMD will serve as a research, assessment, and development hub for digital media applications in education, industry, and community organizations.
The center is located in the Ball Communication building, which has just undergone renovation. The Ball State Web site brags about the building’s new “imported German furniture” and “Art-Deco-style light fixtures,” and notes that, “The bright, airy space is a far cry from the concrete and two-by-four cages that inhabited the space only a year ago.” Ferguson says the university has taken a “vast warehouse-like space” in the building and transformed it into a “high-tech corporate environment,” complete with a state-of-the-art wireless network. Indeed, the entire Ball State campus is one big wireless network, he boasts.
About $7 million from the Lilly grant has gone to this new testing center, including investment in student labs, wireless, and broadband capacity, audio and video equipment, and a “converged” newsroom for print, Web, and TV.
The center is also currently home to a sophisticated real-time video conferencing system they call the Global Media Network. The system is being used to connect Ball State with Kyunghee University in Seoul, South Korea, says Ferguson.
New consumer connections for industries—including explorations of digital cable, DSL, VPNs, WiFi, and broadband and narrowband Internet—will be integral to most of the center’s future digital media projects.
The Center for Media Design (CMD) has five general goals, according to Ferguson:
- Model and demonstrate innovative technology methods and applications
- Establish ongoing testing, evaluation, and reporting processes
- Foster innovative curriculum to produce media professionals for leadership roles in digital media content production and management
- Pioneer content projects that use inventive applications and provide innovative “white papers” to guide industry best practices
- Support growing digital media industries and assist in generating new business opportunities for Indiana
Ferguson says the iCommunication-funded Center for Media Design will provide a foundation for consumer testing on campus as well as in the community. One testing option just getting underway is the campus “smart house,” where consumers will be under observation while testing advanced technology products. The house has been purchased and renovated and is now functional (including the “digital kitchen”), says Ferguson. He isn’t sure yet whether test families will actually be living there full time or will just be asked to “drop in” for short periods of testing. Other CMD testing options include a wireless lab dedicated to researching the future’s best mobile products and content for market.
Ferguson feels that reaching out to the public and fostering external partnerships with high-tech companies will set the CMD apart from other major media research centers, such as MIT’s Media Lab. He doesn’t mind CMD being compared with the Media Lab, but insists, “MIT is working on things that are farther out, more futuristic. Our focus is on content and how users want to interact with it,” he says. “And our emphasis is more on applied research. We want to be in the trenches with real people.”
Ferguson points to a recent corporate partnership endeavor with Network Appliance, Inc. as an example of the kind of cooperative projects he hopes to see flourish there at the center. Network Appliance (or NetApp) is a leading provider of enterprise network storage solutions based in Sunnyvale, California. Ferguson says the center enlisted NetApp’s help to solve a problem it had that dealt with “processing video in real time across multiple platforms.” NetApp personnel came in and worked in tandem with center staffers to solve the problem, and in the process, they cooperatively created a new solution. In some cases, such solutions may be marketable. In this instance, however, Ball State has chosen to share it freely through the issuance of a white paper.
The Center for Media Design’s first big testbed project, which began in March, is a cooperative effort with London-based Media Logic, the creators of an interactive multimedia delivery system called iSeeTV. iSeeTV enables audio, visual, and multimedia contact between an organization’s call center advisor and a customer who converses by telephone and sees personalized content on a TV or PC. Unlike broadcast that delivers one signal to many homes, iSeeTV is narrowcast and delivers one signal to one home device. The service can also support multi-casting to closed user groups.
Ball State University will use iSeeTV to deliver interactive healthcare services to students over the campus’s wireless network.
“iSeeTV provides us a great opportunity to test a valuable health service for students, one that could be duplicated across the country,” says Rodger Smith, the center’s associate director for content, research, and development. Smith says the pilot could also provide a model for consumer connections for other industries via digital cable, DSL, VPNs, WiFi, broadband, and narrowband Internet.
The research pilot will allow 4,000 Ball State students to have reassuring and confidential conversations with a health professional, conducted discreetly with a one-way Web cam, PC, and phone. The patient can see the nurse, but the nurse can’t see the patient. “The kids are talking by phone, so they are somewhat anonymous,” says Dave Ferguson. “That way they will not be afraid to talk due to embarrassment.” The nurse will not diagnose a student’s illness, but provide guidance as to whether a patient should make an appointment for immediate attention and services.
Smith, who is spearheading the project, says he expects most students will ask preliminary questions about general healthcare issues. Students will also have access to streaming video, graphics, and text—directed to them by the nurse after a preliminary interview.
But the ultimate goal of the Center for Media Design is even more grandiose than all this. Simply put, Ferguson and his staff want to transform the entire campus and its surrounding community into America’s biggest and best testbed for digital media content.
The Ball State staff have a catch phrase to describe this goal. They say they want Muncie, Indiana, to become “Digital Middletown.” The phrase refers to a famous series of sociological studies that took place in Muncie starting in the 1920s.
In 1924, funded by a grant from John D. Rockefeller, the husband and wife team of Robert and Helen Lynd came to Muncie. There were looking for a sample community that would represent mainstream America. They were looking for the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public, Mr. and Mrs. Average-American and their 3.2 kids. They chose Muncie, Indiana, and began studying the citizens the way zoologists study tribes of primates. In 1929, they published their results in a best-selling book entitled Middletown.
Among the things the Lynds studied in the 1920s was how ordinary people were responding to the introduction of new technologies such as toasters, washing machines, refrigerators, and radios. The CMD will study how today’s ordinary people respond to new digital technologies. To accomplish this, Ball State will extend its wireless network out to the community, starting with 400 homes, according to Ferguson. “I think our Digital Middletown testbed will be valuable to a lot of people and interesting to America,” he says.
“Being based in the most studied city in America makes our center a perfect location for testing content and products and crafting real-life solutions for challenges society faces in mastering new digital technologies,” says Ferguson. “The center draws talented people together to create and adapt emerging media for use in every facet of society.”
In a recent PBS documentary dealing with the Lynds’ Middletown project, one of the interviewees explained that Robert and Helen chose to study Muncie, Indiana, because it was so ordinary: “There was absolutely nothing exceptional about it.”
But that was then, and this is now. Today, Ball State’s iCommunication-funded Center for Media Design aims to make this unexceptional place very exceptional.