[WATCH] Maltese students at forefront of creative computing advancements

It might sound, and look, like science fiction but creative computing is all about harnessing technology and trying to find common ground with cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence and the arts

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Paul Cocks
15 September 2016, 7:36am
A student at St Martin’s demonstrating the virtual reality tour of St Paul’s Catacombs
A student at St Martin’s demonstrating the virtual reality tour of St Paul’s Catacombs
Creative Computing
Seated at a computer, a student wearing a virtual-reality headset moves his head around, while on the monitor in front of him, the scene changes in sync with his movements.

In one corner, another student plays a short tune on a synthesizer that is linked to a PC, then stops, presses a key on the keyboard, and the computer continues playing the tune on its own. But this is not a recorded audio file; the computer analyses the tune the student was playing and ‘calculates’ what it would have sounded like if he did not stop.

This is not some scene out of a sci-fi spoof movie, or a vignette out of a children’s cartoon, it is actually a fairly common scene inside a lab of the computing department at St Martin’s Institute of Higher Education.

MaltaToday learned that the quality of students and projects in the creative computing industry in Malta is becoming the envy of seasoned professionals abroad, as more students delve into the world of computing to fuel and enhance other dimensions, be they health, education, gaming or the arts.

This creative computing might sound like something beyond the understanding of mere mortals, but it is – simply put – an exercise in trying to find common ground between computing, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence and the arts.

These designers, visionaries and inventors can produce programmes capable of human-level creativity, by formulating algorithms patterned on creative behaviour in humans.

At St Martin’s, I met Dr Maggie Cooper, computing programmes director at the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, who expressed her admiration for the level and quality of tuition in Malta in general, and the institute, in particular.

Maltese students excelling in research and projects

“This is not an easy field of study, as it requires both a strong technical understanding as well as a passion for research and innovation, and yet I am consistently impressed by the students here,” she said.

“40% of students here go on to obtain a first-class degree in creative computing, and that result is phenomenal when you consider that it is much higher than the international average.”

Maggie Cooper, computing programmes director at the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, says she is continuously amazed at the quality of Maltese students and the projects they turn in as part of their studies
Maggie Cooper, computing programmes director at the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, says she is continuously amazed at the quality of Maltese students and the projects they turn in as part of their studies
St Martin’s is an affiliate of the University of London, and the BSc Creative Computing degree follows the same curriculum as Goldsmiths College and other affiliates worldwide.

Cooper said she believed it was the level of tuition and the quality of the facilities that made the difference, besides the strong drive for research, development and innovation demonstrated by many of the local students.

“I cannot emphasise enough how phenomenal the results obtained here are,” she said. “I visit here regularly and I am absolutely fascinated by the research that is going on in particular.”

MaltaToday met a number of lecturers who explained some of the technology they were using and researching within the lab.

Mark Bugeja, a lecturer of creative computing specialising in game development and artificial intelligence, explained how they had utilised virtual reality (VR) coupled with 3D-laser mapping and video, to create a virtual tour of the St Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat.

The experience is quite life-like, MaltaToday can attest, although the lecturers themselves are the first to point out that there is still a way to go in developing the technology further.

The technology utilises existing Oculus Rift technology, available commercially, to immerse the user in an alternate universe.

VR is being increasingly used worldwide for a variety of purposes ranging from gaming to education, arts and medicine.

This particular system, developed at St Martin’s, allows anyone who cannot physically visit the catacombs due to medical reasons, for example, to be able to experience something that would have been impractical – or impossible – without the technology, programming and creativity involved.

Technology and art

Jeremy Grech, a lecturer specialising in image processing and animations, demonstrated a programme whereby a user can transform an image, or photo, into an outline image, that can then be recoloured digitally, or utilised as a drawing book for children, and as a template for crochet or sewing.

“The project is called Go Draw it and the programme analyses any image and automatically selects the predominant colours in order to create a trace of that image,” Grech said.

Technology utilising a chroma-key screen and special effects is used by lecturers and students to experiment with technology as it becomes available.

Digital interpretation of human movement
Digital interpretation of human movement
Silvio Mc Gurk, a lecturer specialising in artificial intelligence, demonstrated the use of the chroma-key screen and explained that lecturers used to record brief lectures which can then be accessed by students.

The screen and recording equipment is also utilised by students in the business department to get them used to being in front of a camera, being part of a panel discussion or being interviewed once they get into business.

 Charles Theuma, founder and principal of Saint Martin’s, said that the institute’s computer department was all about trying to link computer science to the creative world.

“But – because we know that we need to monetise any investment we make – we are trying to find how we can then go to market and sell these concepts,” he said.

The students undergoing studies in creative computing vary from young men and women just finished with their post-secondary education to doctors and airline pilots.

There seems to be no end in sight to how further creative computing can take technology and other disciplines; many believe it will change the world as we know it.

Malta, it seems, is turning out some exceptional projects and research that are leaving others in the field behind, making even professionals like Cooper wonder what else would come out of that well-equipped lab in Hamrun, where technology is harnessed and exploited, and education and instruction taken to new heights, but where it is creativity that rules supreme.

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Paul Cocks joined MaltaToday after having spent years working in newspapers with The Times...