Grant-winning research couples cultural heritage with new media technology

How does a country measure, document, and preserve what is referred to by UNESCO as “Intangible Cultural Heritage” such as the movements of a dance or the decoration on an indigenous dancer’s costumes?

Researchers at Northwestern University in Qatar hope to help answer these questions with a project that will merge cutting-edge technology with cultural tradition. The national grant-winning proposal by co-principal investigators from NU-Q—Sandra Richards, director of the school’s liberal arts program, and Muqeem Khan, associate professor in residence—will capture the traditional ‘ardha sword dance with motion-sensing technology.

The research, entitled “Kinesthetic Learning System for Arabic Indigenous Dances,” was awarded a $1.05 mn grant last week by the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) and holds the potential to capture the spirit of a broad range of indigenous culture across several Gulf states.

Led by NU-Q, the project will be carried out in collaboration with Qatar Museums Authority, which will contribute its expertise in Gulf heritage as well as museum spaces in which the research will be conducted.

According to Richards, using museum spaces as a “live lab” will allow researchers to see how people in Qatar interface with advanced technology, and also provide museum-goers with the opportunity to learn something new. “Coupling these ideas of heritage with advanced motion-sensing technology sends a strong message to young people that traditional activities and going to the museum no longer have to be low-tech or inhibitive. They can be cool and enjoyable too,” she said.

Dean and CEO of NU-Q Everette Dennis noted “this is NU-Q’s first major grant under QNRF and involves an enviable collaboration with one of the country’s great cultural institutions, the Qatar Museums Authority. Professors Khan and Richards are gifted researchers who are taking up an important study that will address cultural heritage issues while using the benefits of new media technology.”

Researchers will feed the measured dance movements into a prototype that they hope will ultimately teach people unfamiliar with the ‘ardha dance how to perform it using an avatar and multiple motion sensors.

“The ‘ardha (traditional sword dance) has always interested me, and I saw a tremendous opportunity to explore cultural heritage through this dance using emerging media; I had already published three research papers on a similar topic,” said Khan, who has worked on visual effects on films such as Armageddon, Flubber, George of the Jungle and Final Fantasy (The Spirits Within).

Khan came up with the idea for his research after a TED@Doha talk he gave on how to use technology to keep heritage alive. “I am convinced that motion sensing technologies will become our future, and that computers will be reacting to our body movements rather than be controlled in the tactile way they are now,” he explained. “I realized right after giving my talk to so many young people that I have to come up with a way to use this technology to preserve and document these aspects of Middle Eastern culture.”