ATEC Undergrad’s Artistic Pursuits Lead to Game Industry Scholarship

Heidi Neunhoffer
Heidi Neunhoffer

Midway through her freshman year studying communication design at the University of North Texas, Heidi Neunhoffer came across UT Dallas in a publication listing the University among 100 other schools deemed the best in animation education.

She said the arts and technology program, in particular drew her attention.

“I’ve always been interested in art,” Neunhoffer said. “I love observing the world, watching movies, playing games, thinking about stories, but for a while, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with art. I just wanted to draw and maybe tell stories. I really loved animation, but I never thought about who made it. Then, in high school, I found out a girl a few classes above me was going to Cal Arts to become an animator. She’s a great artist, and she really inspires me. I realized that if I really wanted to, I could go into animation too.”

After some careful consideration, she decided to transfer to UT Dallas to pursue her passion.

Now a senior, Neunhoffer has received the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) Foundation Scholarship, which supports students pursuing careers in the computer and video game industries. She was among 30 recipients representing institutions such as Duke University, Brown University and the University of Southern California.

“Institutions like UT Dallas rightly recognize the value in preparing students for careers in the video game industry, meeting a rising demand among students and eventual employers,” said Anastasia Staten, executive director of the foundation. “The ESA Foundation is committed to supporting this growth and has provided nearly 300 women and minority students with scholarships to pursue video game-related degrees, giving them not only the opportunity to follow their dreams, but also creating a pipeline of skilled and well-educated job candidates for the video game industry and other careers in STEM-related fields.”

The $3,000 scholarship will help Neunhoffer as she wraps up a fruitful undergraduate career.

Most recently, she had a hand in the preproduction of the annual short film created by the animation studio class. Neunhoffer had input with the script and storyboarding the project, which is in development.

“Heidi is a great example of the type of student who can excel within ATEC,” senior associate dean and associate professor Todd Fechter said. “She has the ability to take classroom concepts and expand them into something greater. Recently, she took it upon herself to create her own short story, complete with designs and storyboards. She created a nice presentation book and showed it to well-known industry professionals at this year’s CTN Animation Expo. They loved it! I’m not surprised. She is one of the most talented and dedicated students I’ve met.”

Neunhoffer has been hungry for opportunities to practice. She said preproduction design classes, taught by Fechter, allow her to hone her craft.

Neunhoffer also has served as a student assistant in the photography department since she began at UT Dallas. She helps with digital printing, mixing darkroom chemicals and assisting with maintenance of the Comer Collection of Photography.

She participates in Comet-Con’s Artist Alley every year, and is working on her ATEC Honors Capstone project.

“The ATEC program is really great because you get to choose what you want to focus on,” she said. “Going to school here has also helped me meet lots of people with similar interests, and it’s really given me time and resources to develop as an artist.”

ATEC Alumnus Gabriel Dawe Creates Colorful Illusions for Exhibit

When visitors first step into the atrium of Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art, they’re met with two massive rays of iridescent light seemingly emanating from the walls. Upon closer inspection, the light dissipates and thousands of strands of colored thread reveal themselves.

The installation, Plexus no. 34, is the work of Dallas-based artist and UT Dallas alumnus Gabriel Dawe MFA’11, who has crafted different iterations of his Plexus series throughout the country. Displayed in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., to Denmark and New York, the works make use of the contrast between the size of the thread and large, open spaces.

“The intent of the Plexus series is to materialize light, to give it density, so that I can offer the viewer an approximation of things otherwise inaccessible to us — a glimmer of hope that brings us closer to the transcendent,” he said. “That difference in scale makes the thread disappear, in a way, leaving the color behind. You end up with these very ethereal structures.”

Gabriel Dawe
Gabriel Dawe installs Plexus no. 34, which will be on display at the Amon Carter through July 25, 2018. (Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

Plexus no. 34, which will be on display at the Amon Carter through July 25, 2018, uses 18 different colors of thread in large swaths spanning the walls of the atrium.

The series is a natural transition from Dawe’s previous embroidery work, which holds special meaning for him. As a child, Dawe remembers stealing little pieces of thread in attempts to make his own designs, in part because his grandmother refused to teach him.

“My mother’s family in Mexico was very conservative in a way, and I would spend a lot of my time with my grandmother,” Dawe said. “There was a lot of macho culture in the household that got passed down to us, and there was a strong dichotomy between boys and girls. So, when I started trying to find my voice as an artist, as a grown man, I revisited that frustration. That’s really what ignited the desire to work with textiles — to challenge those notions, in a way.”

Still, growing up in Mexico City had a positive influence on Dawe, who recalls going to art classes and museums constantly. Fascinated with poster design and photography, Dawe chose to study graphic design at the University of the Americas in Puebla, Mexico.

In 2000, he moved to Montreal and worked as a graphic designer for several years.

“I had a big burnout, and that’s when I decided to quit design,” he said. “That’s basically when I really plunged into making art, trying to show my art, and trying to make it as an artist.”

Dawe first conceived of the Plexus series during his residency at CentralTrak: The UT Dallas Artists Residency, while completing his MFA in arts and technology at UT Dallas. He said he owes his success in part to the residency program, which provides space for eight artists (four visiting and four graduate students) to live and work in downtown Dallas.

“While my experiences as a graphic designer have had an influence on what I do, it was the 3-D work I started exploring in grad school that really took me by surprise,” Dawe said. “I hadn’t really done that, and it was a departure from the 2-D nature of graphic design.”

Dr. Charissa Terranova, associate professor of aesthetic studies and former director of CentralTrak, oversaw Dawe’s residency as a graduate student. She said his current, site-specific, thread-based installations grew out of his deconstructions and reconstructions of everyday pieces of clothing.

“The powder-pink, ruffled silk cuff covered in stick pins, which he gave me years ago, sits atop the jewelry box in my bedroom,” she said. “If I am not thinking about Gabriel when seeing one of his installations while traveling — as I did at the Renwick in Washington, D.C., I think of him for a moment each day when I see this work in my home. It has been wonderful to witness his evolution and the development of his experimentation with fabric, thread and sewing into full-fledged public space.”

For now, Dawe is focusing on his thread work. He most recently completed a 90-mile weaving of thread that will be on display for three years at the San Antonio International Airport. But Dawe said he doesn’t discount the use of other mediums in the future.

“I think there’s an organic evolution of the work. I’ve always had this vision of working with gold leaf for years, for example. I don’t know when, but I’m sure it will come up in the future,” he said.

ATEC Team Receives Healthy Dose of Grants for Virtual Medical Work

Dr. Zielke and research team
Researchers from the Center for Modeling and Simulation and the Virtual Humans and Synthetic Societies Lab include, (from left), Stephen Rodriguez, Erik DeFries, Sean Lenox, Jacob Keul, Dr. Marjorie Zielke, Nick Orr, Gautham Mathialagan, Dylan Fino, research manager Gary Hardee, Leonard Evans, Djakhangir Zakhidov and Joel Rizzo.

A research team from the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at The University of Texas at Dallas has received two grants — one each from Southwestern Medical Foundation and the National Institutes for Health — to fuel ongoing research into virtual reality-based medical experiences.

The Center for Modeling and Simulation and the Virtual Humans and Synthetic Societies Lab, both led by ATEC professor Dr. Marjorie Zielke, are developing an emotive “Virtual Reality Patient,” or VRP, in conjunction with Southwestern Medical Foundation, that medical students will be able to use to improve their patient communication skills.

The center also has received a clinical trial planning grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore virtual reality-graded exposure therapy for those with chronic back pain.

“Both of these new projects continue to establish the center’s growing presence in the medical simulation space,” Zielke said. “Serious games for health and medicine along with our virtual humans program are both critical research areas that we want to continue to grow and nurture.”

Revolutionizing the Medical Interview with Virtual Reality Patients

virtual reality patients
A visualization of an emotive “virtual reality patient” experience is shown. The project, under development by Dr. Marge Zielke’s research team in the Center for Modeling and Simulation and the Virtual Humans and Synthetic Societies Lab, has received funding from Southwestern Medical Foundation.

Working alongside subject-matter experts at the UT Southwestern Medical Center, Zielke’s team hopes to create a platform that will replicate medical interviews with the help of virtual patients and caregivers.

Zielke said the platform will offer high-quality simulations, known as emotive Virtual Reality Patients, which can exhibit medical symptoms to help medical students improve their verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

The virtual humans will complement other training methods, and ideally possess a lifelike ability to have both a conversation and convey emotion — something Zielke said is particularly important in the interview process, given that patients express some things nonverbally.

“Virtual humans have always been a major focus for the center,” Zielke said. “We’ve been working on this project for quite a while, and we would really like this to be a stake in the ground for developing world-class research on virtual patients in Texas. We are very grateful for this grant from Southwestern Medical Foundation to continue our research track focused on virtual humans here at UT Dallas. We hope to develop one of the first augmented or virtual reality-based conversational digital patients right here in our lab.”

With the $200,000 grant from the foundation, Zielke’s team will first develop a state-of-the-art “natural language interface” capable of responsive and realistic communication, with the team compiling data on body language, facial cues and other physiological information.

Zielke said the center has long been interested in creating virtual robots that can either work in tandem, or in some cases, replace the need for medical mannequins often used in educational scenarios. The advantage of a training simulation is its potential to physically emulate what symptoms the patient is presenting.

Given the lab’s past work on game-based medical simulations featuring stroke patients, Zielke said her team has a rich backlog of data regarding stroke-specific dialogue and symptoms they can use as their first case in this new project.

“From its very beginning, Southwestern Medical Foundation has sought to advance medical knowledge to benefit our community,” said Kathleen Gibson, president and CEO of Southwestern Medical Foundation. “As new methods of advanced learning become available, we want to support those innovations that keep medical education at UT Southwestern at the forefront. This collaboration between UTD and UTSW is an exciting example of such innovation and progress.”

Serious Games for Serious Pain

The center — along with colleagues at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Ohio University and others — also has received a $700,000 grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse to develop a serious game aimed at helping patients with chronic back pain.

Unlike most games, serious games are not designed to entertain but to teach, and they’re used in industries such as defense, education and health care. The game Zielke’s team is developing employs the use of graded exposure therapy, which is a method of reducing physical or psychological impairments through gradual exposure to the source of pain or fear.

Titled VRGE (Virtual Reality Graded Exposure), the game uses graded exposure to allay physical disabilities by promoting engagement in physical activities that might otherwise seem intimidating to patients with back pain.

Zielke said graded exposure therapy has traditionally been delivered in clinical settings, so its ability to help patients at home has been limited. VRGE will use motion-tracking technology, ongoing onboard assessments and motivational rewards within the game to reinforce traditional graded exposure therapy.

This ongoing project also received support from the American Pain Society and the North American Spine Society through Dr. Zina Trost at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2015 and 2016.

Note: The research was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R34DA040954. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.