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Monday, April 23, 2001

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Crossing cultural walls

YOU ARE in New York.. you want to float some diyas in the Ganga at Varanasi.. all you have to do is go to the "Crossing" exhibit at the Asia Society, stand in front of a large scroll painting of the Ghats of Varanasi, move the little box in a moving rod to Manikarnika Ghat in the picture and the box will bring the Ghat live for you. You may not only float the diyas being in NY but may also witness a puja and learn all about Varanasi just standing there... by just moving the box on the rod or holding an egg in your hand which will show you pictures as you tilt it.

Sounds incredible? It may soon become a reality and may be on display in an exhibition in your city. Behind all this high-tech wizardry is a pleasant young man, Ranjit Makkuni, a multi-media researcher, designer and musician associated with the prestigious Xerox Palo Research Centre, a world renowned think-tank, responsible for a great many innovations relating to personal computing. Ranjit Makkuni was in Chennai recently to show the new developments to cultural connoisseurs.

After B.Tech from IIT, Kharagpur, and a Masters in Design Theory and Computer Aided Design from the University of California, Ranjit joined Xerox and became part of the visionary group which developed the smalltalk - 80 Object oriented programming language and the world's first graphic user interface. From that base, Ranjit pioneered explorations in active learning. The 'active learning' projects conduct basic research in new paradigms for interface and presentation and develops cutting edge cultural learning applications.

Ranjit is also the president of the Sacred World Foundation, San Francisco, which is committed to bridging the digital and spiritual divide.

"Why is the project called the Crossing?" Ranjit explains: "In India a pilgrimage site is called Tirtha meaning a ford across a stream. And by extension, a cosmic crossing point and sacred place for transformation. Each centre, whether Varanasi in India or Jerusalem in the west are crossing points that provide people with potent, living symbols of the relationship of man to the larger Cosmos - life and death, matter and energy."

"We are applying decades of multi-media expertise we have in cultural learning to build a museum exhibit that will let people connect to the living culture of Varanasi. Through the design of physical and virtual multi-media learning spaces, and through live multi-media connection to the ghats, as well as interpretation by scholars, mystics and ritual specialists, the exhibit will immerse learners in the transformative setting of Varanasi. Multi-media presentations typically present pre- recorded imagery and commentaries. But the Crossing project exhibit will explore how a learner can connect directly to the priest in the Shiva temple, the pilgrims on the ghats, the boatman in the river and the musicians and dancers in schools, says Ranjit.

Ranjit Makkuni's earlier project, 'The Gita Govinda' was shown at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, Europe and the U.S.

How is this useful? "One assumes that better presentations mean effective learning. Digital works that are easier to access and understand, encourage people to explore and learn."

So Ranjit Makkuni has developed technology that has gestures or drawing replacing a mouse of a computer and also releasing computer from a rectangular screen with the person sitting in front of it becoming a part of the scene.

He has also built a completely gesture-based, keyboard less computing system. He is also the co-inventor of Hyperpaper, a paper-based media system that explores the synergies between traditional paper and modern multi-media.

So we wait with bated breath! To experience Varanasi in Chennai!


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