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08.26.19 - The Art of Transformation

Gian Mario Maggio


Researchers expand perspectives and challenge complacencies in unexpected ways
Many people consider work a four-letter word. Josh and Karen Tanenbaum do too, except they spell it P-L-A-Y. The husband-wife team runs its Transformative Play Lab on the second floor of the CALIT2 Building, and as its name hints, the Tanenbaums’ workspace is no ordinary lab.

Possessing the allure of a high-tech adventure playground, the lab invites exploration and discovery.

Costumes sport RFID tags, a dollhouse waits to be equipped with sensors and turned into an interactive storytelling environment, and 3D printers churn out game pieces and other artifacts of personal fabrication. Students with laptops sit around several kidney-shaped tables, while pizza boxes tower on another.

One display features a storytelling electronic glove; another, which resembles a theatrical set, is poised to become a groundbreaking virtual reality experience. “Each station in the lab tells a different research story,” says Josh, an assistant professor of informatics.

Karen, a project scientist who also is a member of the CALIT2 Division Council, serves as lab manager and collaborates on projects with her husband, whom she met during their first week as college freshmen in the late 1990s.

They came to UC Irvine after finishing graduate school at Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts & Technology in British Columbia, Canada. The two immediately developed a kinship with Geoffrey Bowker, Chancellor’s Professor of information and computer sciences, whose Evoke lab also occupies the second-floor space. “We share a lot of interests and research overlap with Geof,” says Josh, “and we are kindred spirits in the methods and values we have around our work.”

“Josh and Karen bring a marvelous blend of the arts, humanities and computer science to the lab,” Bowker says. “The lab’s current vibrancy is due in large part to their work.”

Because the duo concentrates on large-scale mixed-reality installations and virtual reality research, the CALIT2 lab quickly became home. “This is such a unique space,” says Josh, pointing out the lab’s high ceilings, theatrical infrastructure and open areas. “We’ve developed a lot of work that was really only possible because we had a space to install it.”

One of those projects, Magia Transformo, or the Dance of Transformation, gives players the opportunity to dress up in an array of hats and cloaks. They dance around an altar, using interactive spell books to unlock an enchanted cauldron’s flames and become initiated into a magical society.

The installation debuted at the prestigious IndieCade conference in 2017, an achievement that elated its creators. “No one at UCI has ever produced work that has made it to IndiCade,” says Josh, who describes the conference as “the single most prominent festival for up-and-coming independent games. Inclusion in that is something I’m really, really proud of.”

Another project, ShadowCast, is an entertainment-based virtual reality installation that combines musical theater and karaoke. Created in collaboration with Broadway producer Tim Kashani, the piece strives to give users a true theater experience as they become characters in a Broadway musical, singing and dancing while seamlessly experiencing a live audience reaction within the virtual reality framework.

Tanenbaum and Kashani are pushing themselves to finish the installation in time for a May debut at the annual Broadway League Conference in New York City, where artists display new work for producers. “Getting this project out in front of a public audience will be an immense accomplishment,” Josh says.

While their focus is clearly on play, the Tanenbaums are laser-focused on their goals. Their passion lies in creating experiences that encourage people to interact with new perspectives and develop a deeper bond with unfamiliar points of view. Theater and games provide an inviting backdrop.

Says Bowker: “Josh and Karen are in the vanguard of a movement to reinvent the humanities within engineering and computer science. Through their innovative work in gaming, they demonstrate that we can address fundamental issues through creating new transdisciplinary interconnections.”   

The couple homes in on art because they believe that is where they can have the most impact. “I don’t spend much time arguing about whether games are art, because they are,” Josh says matter-of-factly. “We believe deeply that art has always been and will continue to be the most important tool we have as a species for producing those kinds of perspectives – the long-term capacity to meaningfully expand our own individual horizons into somebody else’s life experience.”

Understanding and sharing unexplored viewpoints is as natural as breathing to Josh and Karen. While Karen had a mostly typical experience growing up in a middle-class suburb outside Chicago, Josh, who identifies as queer and non-binary, says he experienced gender dysphoria as a child in a small New Hampshire town. He realized he was transgender as early as four or five years old, he says, but didn’t have the language to express it. “I was probably the only queer kid in town at that point. I was pretty troubled and pretty lonely.”

He spent a lot of time reading and exploring the woods near his home, building a fantasy world in which he could feel comfortable. “I used to construct magical rituals to try to transform myself. It was isolating, and a lot of my early sense of self grew out of my attachment to my isolation and my sense of my own difference,” Tanenbaum says with characteristic honesty.

Despite his inherent intelligence and affinity for reading, Josh was a less-than-stellar student. “I was always the kind of kid who didn’t do school because I was told to do it. I did the stuff I was interested in.”

His family later moved to San Diego, where 10-year-old Josh was “really miserable.” That is, until he discovered San Diego Junior Theater. Throughout middle school and high school, he performed and worked behind the scenes. “I found my people there,” he says.

Karen was a studious, serious child who loved books, and unlike Josh, was an overachiever. “Karen and I defined our relationship that way,” Josh says. “She was the academically successful one and I was the crazy creative one.”

Karen’s family moved to Northern California when she was in high school. She met Josh soon after beginning freshman year at University of Redlands, and the two quickly became a couple, even rearranging their housing so they had respective roommates who also were dating.

Both enrolled in a small, hands-on program in integrated studies, which allowed them to create their own majors. Karen chose philosophy and Celtic studies. Josh was a little less conventional. “I specialized in ancient Sumerian and near-Eastern mythology, with a focus on Sumerian myths of the underworld,” he says, and after a beat, adds: “And experimental electronic music composition.”

“We came out of there, as we like to say, pretty unemployable,” Karen quips.

They married after graduation. While Karen got her master’s degree in linguistics from UC San Diego, Josh worked “a series of increasingly odd jobs,” according to his wife. He read tarot cards for the Psychic Network, worked for an electronics company and backstage in theaters, and did a stint as a lighting technician and engineer for a private company. He also scouted talent for the modeling industry and composed video game music.  

Karen, meanwhile, was working part-time at a software company. “That’s where I made the transition ... into computational linguistics and technology,” she says.

In 2005, at SIGGRAPH, an annual computer graphics conference where Josh helped organize a cyber-fashion show, they saw an art exhibit by two professors from Simon Fraser University. Both Tanenbaums were intrigued, and decided to apply for a doctoral program there. “It was a relatively new program in interactive arts and technology, and at the time it was pretty unique,” Karen says. “So we went there thinking, oh, Josh, could do his art stuff and I can do my tech stuff. It’s a great program for both of us.”
They began the doctoral program, but their plans soon shifted slightly. Karen, who had always envisioned herself in academia, decided she didn’t really want to teach. Josh, who had spent his life being called a mediocre student, flourished in the doctoral program and weighed the possibility of pursuing an academic career.

A couple of years later, when UCI posted a computer games and human-computer interaction (HCI) faculty position, Josh applied. He was hooked when he visited the campus. “I was so blown away by the diversity of the community intellectually, by the sense of camaraderie and sanity and kindness, by the commitment to having healthy life and work habits,” Josh says. “It was the most welcoming academic environment I had ever experienced.”

Karen secured a part-time contract as a CALIT2 project scientist, and they arrived in Irvine in 2014. She also does some virtual reality work on the side with small startup companies, including one called Shovels+Whiskey. Josh lends his expertise from time to time as an unpaid consultant.

“What makes Karen and Josh truly excellent is their commitment to interdisciplinary exploration,” says Shovels+Whiskey principal Tawny Schlieski.  “In particular with evolving technology and changing patterns of use, Josh and Karen’s open exploration of ideas from gaming, HCI and theater help them to uncover truly unique and compelling insights.”

Schlieski also praises the Tanenbaums’ broad skill set. “They can seamlessly innovate on both the technical interface elements, as well as the instructional design approach to the broader social science objectives,” she says.

As much as he loves designing, Josh also has developed an unexpected love for teaching. He relishes the role of supporting his students through the design process, and leads the computer science capstone game project class, a two-quarter-long design collaboration with industry mentors. “My happy place is working in a project-based class where students are doing iterative design,” he says.

That enthusiasm – “In the classroom I put on the Josh show,” he wisecracks – has led to close relationships with his students. They describe him as passionate, enthusiastic, thoughtful and supportive.

“I think Josh is willing to push the boundaries of what we research in the informatics department, and brings an energy and level of excitement to his mentoring that gets his students and research assistants excited about trying something new and unknown,” says former student Nicole Crenshaw.

Crenshaw, who earned her doctorate in 2017, currently works as a user experience researcher at video game company Blizzard. She says she is still in touch with many students in Josh’s capstone course. “I know he is what makes that course as enjoyable as it is. It is not at all an exaggeration when I say I have had students tell me that his course is the ONE course they look forward to going to.”

Archana Senthilkumar graduated last December with a master’s degree and now works as a technical director trainee at Walt Disney Animation Studios. “I always knew that I wanted to work at the intersection of art and technology, and while I had a good technical background, my understanding of the creative process was very limited,” Senthilkumar says. “Working with Josh introduced me to the more iterative nature of art and how the creative design process could be understood better through research and quantitative terms. ... I’m sure [his mentoring] helped me obtain my current role at Disney Animation.”

Karen and Josh are now parents to a 3-1/2-year-old blonde bundle of energy named Abigail, who considers her parents’ workplace her second home. “Our lab has a lot of attraction for her,” laughs Karen after Abigail demands of Josh, “Daddy, can you pay attention to me for a little bit? But you have to be in front of the whiteboard.”

“She’s an evil genius,” Josh says fondly of his daughter, who he has begun indoctrinating into the world of game design; together they are redesigning the childhood classic Candyland to include a variety of choices and strategies. “She is already a very strong narrative thinker, and she’s good at storytelling and at cause and effect,” Josh says. “I’m trying to get her to shift that thinking into game design.”

Both Tanenbaums describe themselves as creative, curious and cynical. “We’re basically the same person,” Karen jokes when told that Josh had used the same adjectives.

“We have enough in common that it’s often hard to tell where one of our contributions ends and the other’s begins,” Josh concedes, but he sees their skills as complementary. “I tend to be broader and Karen tends to be practical and focused,” he says. “I’ll be the one who does the associative thinking, then she’ll reign me in and we’ll focus on what’s actually accomplishable.”
Josh considers himself an optimist as well. “I’m torn between wanting the world to be better than it is and expecting better things from the world than it actually provides.”

He finds a sort of catharsis through his work. “I’m trying to make things better. The cynicism leads me to deeply and profoundly feel injustice and identify things I want to make better. And the optimism gives me the resources to do that ... the ability to delude myself into thinking that I can actually make a small difference.”

Making that difference includes being straightforward about his sexuality, says Josh, who often presents as female on weekends, when not in work mode. “I have a wife, I have a daughter. On the surface, I look like a straight dude. I benefit from a lot of male privilege and a lot of straight privilege,” says Josh. “So I feel that I have a responsibility as somebody who is not a straight dude to be a role model to students who are looking for someone like them in the teachers they interact with. I have a responsibility to not just benefit from that privilege but to extend that privilege to people who are more vulnerable or at risk than I am.”

Tanenbaum is still incredulous that he ended up on the tenure track at a research university. “It’s astonishing and unexpected,” he says. “I always assumed I would be the stay-at-home dad, doing odd jobs and writing, and Karen would be in academia.”

Adds Karen: “And then we found this field where his crazy creativity could be channeled into something that was also intellectually rigorous.”

Josh nods. “I’ve always been most successful when I’m doing the things that I’m genuinely excited about,” he says. “But I mean, I study fun for a living, I study play and art and music and theater. And I believe very deeply that those are the things that matter.”

– Anna Lynn Spitzer