PRO­FES­SOR A DATA ROCK STAR

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY PAGE LEGGETT Arts cor­re­spon­dent

A UNCC pro­fes­sor’s data-driven maps help il­lus­trate the eco­nomic mo­bil­ity is­sues that Char­lotte faces.

Pro­fes­sors of ur­ban plan­ning aren’t al­ways as in de­mand as Dr. MingChun Lee. He’s be­come sort of a rock star of academia.

And his aug­ment­e­dreal­ity maps play a big role in “#HomeCLT,” which opens Feb. 27 at the Levine Mu­seum of the New South. They help view­ers see how neigh­bor­hoods in Char­lotte have changed over time — in a three­d­i­men­sional and, or­ga­niz­ers hope, in­trigu­ing and mem­o­rable way.

The UNC Char­lotte as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor’s pop­u­lar­ity soared, rel­a­tively speak­ing, last March at a sym­po­sium at UNC Char­lotte Cen­ter City – maybe not a place you’d ex­pect to find The Next Big Thing. “Ur­ban Com­plex­i­ties: Eq­uity, Eco­nomic Mo­bil­ity and the Built En­vi­ron­ment” was the sur­pris­ingly fas­ci­nat­ing topic.

One part of the sym­po­sium was an in­ter­ac­tive in­stal­la­tion called “Map­ping (In)Eq­uity in the Built En­vi­ron­ment.” The ex­hi­bi­tion — cre­ated by UNC Char­lotte City Build­ing Lab Di­rec­tor Na­dia An­der­son, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban de­sign, with Dr. Lee and sev­eral stu­dents — drew the at­ten­tion of lead­ers at the Knight Foun­da­tion, the Levine and the pub­lic li­brary, among oth­ers.

They were fas­ci­nated by Lee’s high-tech maps, which showed shift­ing pat­terns in Char­lotte neigh­bor­hoods. View­ers used tablets and an app; when they held the tablet up to the map, 3D graph­ics sprang up on the screen.

And by look­ing at three

sets of data — res­i­dents’ so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus, prop­erty val­ues and racial de­mo­graph­ics — as 3D graph­ics over three time pe­ri­ods (2000, 2010 and 2017), there ap­pears to be “an al­most per­fect cor­re­la­tion” vis­ually, Lee said, be­tween hav­ing high in­come and high prop­erty value and be­ing white in Meck­len­burg County. So Lee’s data-driven maps help il­lus­trate the eco­nomic mo­bil­ity is­sues that Char­lotte faces. “Data can be ‘viewed’ by the naked eye as ‘graph­ics,’ rather than num­bers,” he said. “And through this vis­ual process, in­for­ma­tion may be ex­tracted in a more ef­fec­tive way.” That was the big aha at the sym­po­sium: It’s one thing to read the data. It’s an­other to see it in 3D form.

That’s what the Levine Mu­seum wanted for #HomeCLT. Lee’s maps, with oth­ers, and with video and still pho­tog­ra­phy of res­i­dents telling per­sonal sto­ries, form the core of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

His maps cre­ated “the most at­ten­tion I’ve ever got­ten from my work,” Lee said. “The Knight Foun­da­tion grant came out of nowhere.” He’s among five in­au­gu­ral Fel­lows in the Niantic/Knight Fel­lows Pro­gram, a com­mu­nity en­gage­ment ini­tia­tive led by the John S. and James L. Knight Foun­da­tion and Niantic Inc., pro­po­nent of AR tech­nol­ogy and maker of the Poké­mon GO game.

VR TOO, THOUGH

Clearly, Lee’s work can il­lus­trate se­ri­ous is­sues.

But not all of his work is that sober. His per­sonal re­search in­ter­ests are both AR and vir­tual re­al­ity (VR). “Both were de­vel­oped at the same time, but VR got all the at­ten­tion,” Lee said. VR takes you, for a time, out of this world and into an­other. AR al­lows you to re­main in this world and see things in it that aren’t phys­i­cally there.

“You can still see the world around you, but vir­tual ob­jects show up in your field of vi­sion, too,” Lee ex­plained. “You see the real world but with vir­tual things merged in with it. You can ex­pe­ri­ence that over­lap from your phone or tablet.”

VR is an es­cape. AR can be a learn­ing tool. “VR cre­ates a vir­tual world that may be cut off com­pletely from the real one,” Lee said, “while AR adds vir­tual ob­jects over the real world and may trig­ger some … in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the two worlds.”

AR tech­nol­ogy came into play last Septem­ber at Open Streets 704, an event in which Lee used Poké­mon GO tech­nol­ogy to en­tice peo­ple to ex­plore Char­lotte on foot or on bike and build a sense of com­mu­nity. (It was the per­fect pro­ject for an ur­ban plan­ner who wants to use tech­nol­ogy to bring peo­ple to­gether.)

There were PokéS­tops along the route. PokéS­tops are ac­tual phys­i­cal lo­ca­tions which Poké­mon GO play­ers can visit in per­son and “catch” Poké­mon fig­ures by play­ing the game. The Open Streets 704 event last fall had more than 15 such stops, in­clud­ing in Ro­mare Bear­den Park and John­son & Wales Univer­sity.

Maps put Lee on the – well – map, but his fa­cil­ity with AR and VR may en­sure his stay­ing power.

This story is part of an Ob­server un­der­writ­ing pro­ject with the Thrive Cam­paign for the Arts, sup­port­ing arts jour­nal­ism in Char­lotte.

JOSHUA KOMER The Char­lotte Ob­server

Su­gar Creek Li­brary em­ployee Jo Henry watches an in­ter­ac­tive video at the aug­mented re­al­ity in­stal­la­tion.

JOSHUA KOMER The Char­lotte Ob­server

Ming-Chun Lee, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­ture at UNCC, talks about how lay­ing out data us­ing tech­nol­ogy is aid­ing ur­ban plan­ners to see neigh­bor­hoods dif­fer­ently.

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