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April 6, 2021

Alumni Spotlight: Karl Baumann '18

By Jason Ng

Media is just for consumption, right? But what if we told you that media can be used to envision a better future for humanity? This is what is on the agenda of Karl Baumann ’18, a Ph.D graduate of the Media Arts + Practice division. Karl is a filmmaker, researcher, and a designer. But he’s also a world-builder and visionary creator through the channel of media. He works closely to reexamine the use of technology in our daily lives and to find ways to repurpose it for the benefit of all. Karl joins us to talk about the ways that media can be implemented to better human lives, from urban planning to storytelling, as well as his experience with new technologies such as in AR/VR, and his contributions to fighting back against the COVID pandemic. 

Media Arts + Practice is a relatively new division at SCA. As a Ph.D. graduate from the division, can you describe the curriculum and its mission, and how it aligns with your personal goals? 

It was always my dream to go to USC, and Media Arts + Practice seemed unique because it was a hybrid program. It requires both a strong creative craft as well as academic inquiry. Now having finished the program, I think MA+P’s core is about using emerging technology as an instrument for exploring philosophical questions. Like a biologist uses a microscope as an instrument for their study, we might use virtual reality, drone-based sensors, or data visualization as tools to explore and represent our topics. The core curriculum teaches us a critical framework on how to use these tools within an academic research setting. Beyond that, it’s adaptive to the different academic pursuits of the students, who come from a range of disciplines such as film, video games, fine art, design, and architecture. We have differing backgrounds but are driven by a common desire to push the boundaries of both technology and our field of study.  

Visions of Aleph (2013) an experimental video game Karl created during his first year at the MA+P program. 

We live in a digital and information-driven age. What are some of the ways that you think our lives have been affected,  or possibly improved, by the advancements in media and technology?  

It’s much easier these days to become a creator and share your own stories online. There are free tools that enable people to create their own music, films, apps, games, and AR experiences. Online skill sharing communities, from forums to YouTube, provide an array of free knowledge and tutorials. The democratization of this technology is powerful.  

There is also a dark side though. Disinformation has become rampant. A decade ago, I thought social media would bring the world together by sharing stories and building empathy. That utopian notion of a “global village” quickly eroded into tiny echo chambers and a breakdown of our collective reality. It’s 2021 and we have people that believe the earth is flat.  

Technology will always be a mixed bag with biases and unintended consequences. We have to think through the social implications of technology in advance and ask if they really model the world we want in the future. A world that is inclusive, democratic, and betters our collective human progress. 

You stress “world building” as one of your focus points. How are you working towards using media to build the world into a better place? 
 
While at USC, I worked with Alex McDowell at the World Building Media Lab. As the production designer on Minority Report (2002), he didn’t have a script so they began by designing the contours and internal logic of their story world. From there the method has evolved to explore real-world issues of urban planning, climate change, and beyond. 

For my dissertation project, I ran community “world building” workshops in the Leimert Park neighborhood in Crenshaw. We used the creative design processes to collectively imagine the future of the neighborhood. I developed this project with professor François Bar and Ben Caldwell, a filmmaker, digital artist, and community organizer. Ben had been working in Leimert Park for thirty-plus years, and we had been collaborating for five years. For Ben, our projects were an opportunity to support neighborhood efforts to determine their own future without feeling victimized by threats of gentrification. Though our final Sankofa City project often used the power of fiction, we were able to make real changes. We worked with the city to install a pedestrian plaza in 2015 and Ben is now running a community transit pilot program. To build the future, we first have to imagine a shared vision.  

Sankofa City (2017-2019), a community world building project that lead to a range of concepts, a design fiction film, and a VR experience. 

You’re a filmmaker, researcher, as well as a designer. In what ways do the roles complement each other as you work on your projects? 
 
Research is foundational. Why do anything if you aren’t tackling tough questions and trying to uncover something new? The way you go about research though depends on your discipline and your topic. In my current job at D-Ford, we work with IDEO and the Human-Centered Design method. Our work is iterative and pushes us to create prototypes quickly to test and experiment with a range of people.  

When prototyping, I use both my skills in design and filmmaking. Depending on the concept, I might create storyboards, low- to high-fidelity user interfaces, a virtual immersive experience, or a scenario film. Film is good for showing how people actually use a technology in their lives. You can also leverage special effects to represent speculative technologies. For me as a designer and filmmaker, I am especially interested in people’s motivations, rituals, and aspirations. As a researcher, I am then driven to abstract those human dimensions to a system-level in relationship to larger technological, urban, and social dynamics.  

Last year, you led a team at D-Ford to design services and coordinated the distribution of Ford-produced PPE during the COVID pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about that experience? 

When the COVID pandemic hit the US, it was disheartening to see how overwhelmed the healthcare system was and how unprepared we were as a country. Within a month, Ford pivoted to producing face shields and ventilators to help fill the gap and support healthcare and essential workers. It was a great rallying cry in the company and a reminder of our past. Throughout Ford’s 117 years, they have stepped up in global crises: from creating Iron Lungs in the Polio Epidemic to building airplanes in WWII. Ford ultimately distributed 20 million face shields, 50,000 ventilators, and 120 million masks. Since then they’ve also created open-source designs for more effective HVAC airflow and transparent ventilator masks which can help deaf individuals read lips. 

Our project at D-Ford Palo Alto was one part of this larger effort. We were supporting smaller vulnerable communities and healthcare facilities that initially fell through the cracks. We worked with Ford dealers in the West Coast and Southwest to help distribute face shields to healthcare workers, assisted living facilities, and a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. We worked remotely with most of the dealers to help facilitate delivery plans, safety protocols, and determine best practices. My team and I also physically joined the nearby Morgan Hill Ford Store to deliver supplies to assisted living facilities in the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area. It was touching to see the look of gratitude from healthcare workers and powerful to realize how vulnerable they are in this battle against the pandemic. They really deserved more support in these challenging times. 

Healthcare professionals receiving Ford produced PPE face shields during COVID pandemic.  

You've been highly involved in AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) research. What advancements in AR and VR do you hope to see in the near future?  

I’m still looking forward to the day when augmented reality fits seamlessly into our urban lives through a simple pair of glasses. Currently, the closest thing to this vision are mixed reality (MR) headsets. Microsoft has just released a number of demos of its Hololens 2 and its accompanying Mesh technology. They would enable people across multiple locations to appear to stand and interact in the same room - like holographic ghosts around a shared 3D object. It looks like something out of science fiction.  

However, the technology is currently focused on business and enterprise applications, which have become even more relevant with everyone working virtually during COVID. Magic Leap has also shifted their AR headset towards an enterprise focus, with the promise of eventually returning to customer experiences and entertainment. These headsets are still a bit expensive for the everyday user and a bit clunky for walking around in the wild. But they’re only going to get more compact and powerful in the coming decade.  

Can you describe what “storyliving” is, and how might it change the way we look towards the future of storytelling and journalism? 

The “storyliving” concept came from a Google News Lab report that I helped co-author. We argued that virtual reality was a significant shift from traditional mediums and that “storytelling” wasn’t the right word for conveying the experiential depth of VR. Based on anthropological research, we found that viewers discussed their VR experiences as if they lived it. They often needed a few minutes afterwards to process the virtual experience and remembered poetic elements or physical features rather than explicit information or dialogue. 

Unlike traditional films where interactivity may break your suspension of disbelief, the use of physical hand controllers in VR deepens the cognitive link between the user’s actions and the virtual world. Many scholars have even argued this sense of embodiment can create deeper empathy around social issues. At Stanford for example, they have run a number of studies to test how VR experiences can lead people to address issues of physical disabilities, race, gender, and even climate change.  

Having participated in many research labs, what continually motivates you to explore new ideas and pursue new ways to make an impact in the community? 

I am driven by a constant curiosity in new people, design tools, and ideas. I moved a lot as a kid and it taught me at a young age that culture is relative. We inhabit the same planet but we all live in different worlds. So I’m always fascinated to learn what other people believe or how other disciplines think. I feel lucky that in my current job we are able to travel (pre-COVID) and interview people across the world. I’ve met fascinating people: such as smart city experts in China, bike delivery couriers in the West Coast, disaster relief responders in the South, and ambulance drivers in the Midwest. Each person sticks with you and it’s often our job as designers to champion their voices as we’re creating new products or experiences. And sometimes, we get to design directly with communities and create something truly unique. I think for everyone involved, the prospect of defining an unknown future is exciting. 

How can we dispel the notion that media is just for entertainment consumption and push for the idea that it can be  a beneficial tool for humanity? 

Recently, NASA landed a rover on Mars. This historical piece of machinery was driven by a scientist named Dr. Swati Mohan. As a young 9-year-old girl, she watched Star Trek and dreamed of working in space. The show not only made science cool, but also represented an inclusive future in which alien races work together to maintain peace in the universe. Beyond entertainment, stories can create a blueprint for a better society. 

Storytelling tools - like the video cameras on our phones - can also be used to help us make sense of current social issues. Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests were the biggest in US history. They started from a cell phone video of police brutality against George Floyd. Unfortunately, these traumas are not new but the technology enables everyday citizens and activists to shine light on injustices and inspire global protests. Media can force us to confront our historical structural inequalities as well as inspire us to imagine a brighter future. 

What are your words of advice for those who are seeking to create change in the world through the channel of media? 

My advice is don’t go at it alone. Find partners, organizations, and collaborators. I originally thought that a “media artist” was a singular genius. But creativity doesn’t happen in isolation. There are so many groups out there doing good work or others looking for a partner. Find people that share your passion and have a different background or skill set than yourself. Innovation and progress happen from cultural exchanges and interdisciplinary collaborations. I’ve learned so much by working with different collaborators. Ben Caldwell, who I mentioned earlier, has worked tirelessly for decades to maintain relationships and work across diverse communities in LA. It takes a movement to change the world, but it first starts with just reaching out to others. 

A few of the core Sankofa City and Leimert Phone Company collaborators: Raul-David “Retro” PoblanoBen CaldwellPatrice FisherKarl Baumann and Denise Yolén.