Michael McKellar is an Assistant Professor of Practice of Arts and Entertainment Technologies (AET).
What courses do you teach here at UT?
I am a new professor at practice within the AET major, working specifically in the PLAI [Projection, Lighting, and Interactivity] profile. I would like to think that I could advertise myself as teaching all things interactive and responsive. We have a lot changing here at the moment within AET and PLAI. My core classes focus on the practical development of skills to make humans and computers talk to each other, maybe in ways they normally shouldn’t.
For example, in the coming semester we are introducing two new classes UT hasn’t had before: Visual Programming and Physical Computing. In the coming years, and with the introduction of the new 2020 calendar, we are expanding these interactive and responsive concepts. Helping create the next generation of ‘creative technologists’ is a very sought-after job in the current design world.
What are some of the differences you see between American and UK/European approaches to arts technologies?
It’s a tough question to answer because we work at the literal cutting edge of some areas, so the reach for people operating in certain technologies or arts can extend well beyond one continent. More generally speaking, I very much feel there is a wider expectation/acceptance of the unusual or experimental art in America, specifically with my background in projection & immersive room spaces. A lot of the creative agencies operating on this side of the world are very well established and more accepted as creating ‘the best of the best.’ Advertisers and businesses here appreciate that sending email newsletters sometimes isn’t what the audience wants, and that filling Times Square with an experience is a far more appropriate way to achieve their goal. A big favorite of mine for an example would be the amazing Red Paper Heart in Brooklyn.
In contrast, having worked in this field in the UK for a long time, I feel there is more of a battle to convince companies that an indirect or arts-based approach is best for their desired result. Having just moved here, I definitely feel there is a greater understanding that students, creators or artists can make a career in a non-conventional subject such as interactive or creative technology, and it is something that is actively sought after. Look at the historic list at interactivejobs.io – 90% of them are US-based postings for creative applicants.
How did your career in tech get started?
As long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for art, games and computing. Which naturally progressed into a desire to study and improve my skills. My undergraduate degree was titled Interactive Media Design which was the perfect culmination of the three areas. While studying, I was lucky enough to have a great mentor in one of my lecturers in Edinburgh (Scotland), who really helped inspire and guide me into the non-conventional interactive art and technology world out there. With his guidance outside of my studies, I started to create a number of small-scale interactive experiences combining sound, light and colour that I took to a number of events around Scotland. Regardless of my degree, this gave me the foundation portfolio that really was the catalyst for my breakthrough into tech.
Based on my unusual portfolio, I was invited to build a similar experience for a touring art exhibition exploring the cities of the future and the implications of data privacy and collection on citizens. The result was an interactive projected experience that tracked users who entered the gallery and displayed various pieces of data around them as they moved. Opening in a Venice venue during the Biennale of Architecture, I was fortunate enough to have it tour around the majority of mainland Europe (http://www.citydatafuture.eu/). So, to directly answer the question, childhood passion, inspiring teaching staff and a desire to create the weird and unusual started me on the path that has brought me here today.
What brought you to The University of Texas at Austin?
Ignoring the amazing job opportunity for now, UT allowed me to do something that no one really gets to do in a life. In Europe and the UK, a person only moves around 4 or 5 times in their life, nearly always locally. On top of that, as long as I can remember I had always wanted to at least try to live and work in America (maybe on one of the coasts originally...), so when a job posting went live that felt it was perfectly written for you, you have to answer the call!
The position of Professor of Practice is amazingly unique as it allows me to share my passion for a number of very niche subjects all while continuing to develop myself, my business and my portfolio. You never really stop learning or growing at any age. If I can share the passion and inspiration that was given to me while studying my first degree, then it will be a very worthwhile move. I’m just lucky enough to have a wife that is always willing to support my crazy ideas (thanks Emma!).
What did you do before teaching?
I have taught on and off over the years. In my first years of freelance interactive design work I worked at my undergraduate university teaching the subjects that I myself had studied. I moved away from teaching when I was offered a unique position helping improve Scottish industry in the hyper-niche interactive projection field where I completed my research degree in the understanding of user experience inside completely projected environments.
That academic position became a full-time industry position where I developed a number of shared immersive virtual reality devices, known as CAVES and Domes. It was at this time, having been away from teaching for a number of years, that I realized I missed the constant ability to share knowledge and started a company that creates, uploads and shares lecture-style tutorials for the creation of interactive and creative computing experiences.
Before finally returning to full-time teaching with this position at UT, I was the technical lead of a startup in the UK that was building bespoke immersive experiences for high-profile architectural and design clients around the world.
What technical project has been most challenging?
In my experience - challenging can take on one of two forms:
1. You’re trying to achieve something that has never been done before in this way, and it’s technically complex
2. You’re having to work in conditions that are suboptimal or counterproductive to the goal
Thankfully, I have an example that tackles both of those points.
The company I previously mentioned was given the opportunity to supply our immersive projection technology to the Saudi Government for their Future Investment Initiative (FII) Expo. For this we were to build two completely new, first-of-their-kind projected experiences and deliver four of them to the FII event. The icing on the cake was that the project began in July and was to be delivered in October of the same year.
We designed, engineered and implemented three 8 meter (26 feet), 360 degree projection domes and a single 14 meter (45 feet) projection wall that included an 8 meter projected floor. In my role at the company, I was responsible for developing and creating everything between the content to be shown and the projectors that output the images (including the hardware and software required to make everything talk correctly). With a lot of sleepless nights and nonstop days we were able to design, build and implement all four ‘giga projects’ perfectly. In total we dealt with 45 projectors, 6 servers, over 150 million pixels and 5 terabytes worth of data to help Saudi Arabia announce the development of 3 new mega cities inside its country.
I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to deliver. Even if it seems that it isn’t possible or everything is going wrong, there is a way to get through it and still deliver. This is quite an extreme example given the client, climate and what was promised, but I guarantee it’s an experience I’ll never forget and a lesson that will be with me for the same length of time.
What advice do you have for AET students about to enter the tech industry?
My advice for nearly anyone that is interested in getting into tech, whether PLAI focused or not, is to challenge everything. Just because your are being taught or shown one way to achieve something doesn’t mean it is the right way, or the only way. I don’t mean this as “disrupt everyone and anyone in classes or jobs” but more as a way of thinking. If you develop the mindset that there may be other ways to achieve something, then chances are you can find another way to do it.
Regardless of company, businesses don’t want to hire someone who can do just what they are asking; they want someone who can challenge the way that things are being done. In my experience, whether hiring directly within technology or even as a freelancer, this seems to be the overarching narrative in most of the industry. There has never been a more rewarding time to think outside the box, so be creative about it.
What's your favorite thing about Austin?
Before we arrived, Austin was described as two things to Emma and I: great for food and music! I think these have been the standout features for me so far. I’m a massive dance music fan and I’ve been able to tick of some artists that I never would have been able to see within literally weeks of arriving here – that’s pretty memorable for me.
But the food – wow. Some of the little, unsuspecting restaurants and eateries have been some of the most unique I’ve had in a long time. The one that jumps to mind is Tyson’s Tacos on Airport and 51st, WOW!