The first striking thing about 34-year-old wunderkind David McConville as he answers the door to his West Asheville studio is not so much the shaved head and black goatee but the T-shirt proclaiming, “I’m an idiot.”
In fact, his nickname is “Id.” Which is funny, really, because judging by his two-page curriculum vitae (which would give most folks his age — or any age, for that matter — a distinct inferiority complex), McConville is anything but an idiot. In reality, the moniker stems not from his lack of brainpower but because he’s a bass player — typically the low man on the musical totem pole.
Inside McConville’s studio, what immediately grabs the eye is a 15-foot inflatable dome made of black rip-stop nylon. But again, what’s most impressive is what lies within — an “immersive environment” of multimedia sight and sound that can transport visitors anywhere from the molecular level to the farthest reaches of the universe. (One could also throw a wicked awesome rave in there, if only the dome were a bit bigger.)
Inside, McConville shows this reporter and an 8-year-old visitor named Ethan several comfy, reclining beanbag chairs, a dome projector custom-fitted by Elumenati (the Minnesota-based company McConville co-founded), and a computer that spews out two shows produced elsewhere. The first, an animated short called Molecularium, was designed by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to teach youngsters ages 5-8 the basics of the atomic realm. And Tours of the Universe, a real-time software program designed by the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, uses constantly updated mapping data from NASA to convey viewers to just about anyplace imaginable — even going back to prehistory.
Want to know what the night sky looked like above Angkor Wat in present-day Cambodia or the pyramids of Giza at any given day and time? Tours can deliver, making it a boon for archaeoastronomers, among other seekers. Then again, the view can quickly be brought back home to Buncombe County, making the program a tool that McConville hopes will soon help local planners study, map and mitigate flood-prone areas. With obvious glee, he zeroes in on Asheville’s watershed, asking, “Isn’t that cool?”
In collaboration with Hayden, McConville and Elumenati are working with a Swedish firm to simplify and market the program so it can be used on flat-screen projectors in classrooms, as well as for astronomical research. “We recently showed [Tours] to 130 kids in Rutherfordton to help explain the phases of the moon, and they were incredibly psyched,” he reports.
There are myriad uses for such domed, immersive environments, but McConville says he’s most interested in the educational applications, particularly as they interface with the obvious entertainment value. Besides creating content, McConville and Elumenati also consult with museums and other organizations on technical issues and on how to present multimedia content in a domed setting — whether a portable dome or a larger, fixed one.
Notwithstanding his obvious entrepreneurial bent, McConville says his passion for this cutting-edge technology is rooted in the personal. “When I was in school, I was one of those students, those sleepers in the back of the class,” he explains. “I was bored s**tless. Most of us are visual thinkers. … We need to be stimulated in order to learn.” And unlike a stale book or dry lecture, immersive environments can be used to open up the world and engage learners of all ages, McConville maintains.
Outside the studio, Ethan helps prove the point as he bounds around, overflowing with 8-year-old energy. “That was awesome!” he exclaims. “I learned so much my head actually feels full.”
Ever the eclectic, McConville is hard to pin down. In this, he’s reminiscent of his hero R. Buckminster Fuller — one of the 20th century’s premier polymaths. Quite simply, McConville is a lot of things: multimedia artist, businessman, inventor, media advocate, community activist — and futuristic thinker who recognized the Internet’s practical potential early on. While still a graduate student, he helped UNC-Chapel Hill’s WXYC become the first radio station in the world to stream its content over the World Wide Web. At the time, the technology was so far ahead of the law that it took two months of wrangling before Federal Communications Commission officials allowed the project to proceed. Today such webcasts are ubiquitous. In fact, McConville’s accomplishment has entered the realm of historical trivia: WXYC’s pioneering webcast became a Jeopardy answer on an April 2004 broadcast of the popular TV game show.
Now, however, McConville has another identity: Noosphere Tweaker, his hipster title at Elumenati. (His slightly more respectable-sounding actual title is director of noospheric research.)
In the Earth’s beginning was the geosphere (our physical world). Then came the biosphere (the living world). But the third realm, the noosphere — the world of the mind — is where this former Georgia boy and UNCA graduate resides, helping create content for his immersive dome experiences and traveling the globe in search of consulting gigs for new and innovative projects.
In 2004, McConville won the first-ever Best in Show award at Domefest (described as the world’s first international, juried dome-film festival) in New Mexico, for his film Optical Nervous System. “We’re not interested in the easy stuff,” he says. “We want to work on the hard stuff and the stuff that’s never been done before.”
But McConville’s journey toward his current situation took a circuitous route. In the latter ’90s, as friends and colleagues were getting swallowed up by the irrationally exuberant Internet hype, McConville remained dubious about essentially valueless startups whose exponential growth eventually led to the collapse of the Internet bubble. Instead, he sold his belongings and set out for India, Malaysia and Singapore. While overseas, he was working off and on for an immersive-environment firm in Research Triangle Park. In Asia, he came to the attention of Japanese conceptual artist Mariko Mori, who asked McConville to be her technical director and help her design a virtual Zen Buddhist temple. He lived in Tokyo for two months helping facilitate the 3-D shrine — a period he calls “eye opening” and which pointed him solidly toward his current career.
“It dawned on me there that if I’m going to do the work I want to do, I need to move back to the States,” McConville says now. “That’s when I decided to move back to Asheville, because that was the one place I ever lived where I felt completely at home. When I’m here, things just kind of click.” And though Elumenati’s administrative office and optics lab are in Minneapolis, McConville has been based here since 1999, happily ensconced amid a largely unknown and untapped population of technically brilliant people, he says.
In Bucky’s footsteps
McConville’s latest passion draws on another concept from Fuller. Quite simply, he’d like to heal the world — in very real and practical ways. That’s the impetus behind the Design Science Lab scheduled for July 19-28 at UNCA. (To apply, go to www.designsciencelab.org.)
“Design science” is a problem-solving methodology developed by Fuller. Best known for creating the geodesic dome, the inventor, philosopher and designer began work on that seminal concept in the 1940s, when he came to WNC to teach at the legendary Black Mountain College.
“He was known as a visionary, but at the same time, he was amazing at being able to break solutions down to their fundamental components [while] keeping the comprehensive view,” McConville explains. This, he says, involves “addressing things individually and seeing what emerges; experimentally entering a situation and understanding … the way nature works.”
Using present-day technology and known resources and databases, the Design Science Labs, a project of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, develop affordable solutions to local, regional and global problems. The Design Science Labs are based on the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, McConville explains. The first such gathering, held at the U.N. last summer, tackled world hunger; another one is slated to take place there in June. But the Asheville gathering has the distinction of being the first to look at problems on a regional scale, he notes.
“When the idea first arose of doing it here, I made the suggestion we really focus on regional issues,” says McConville. A presentation by McConville and a fellow board member of the Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center detailing Fuller’s impact on the groundbreaking school inspired Elizabeth Thompson, the director of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Buckminster Fuller Institute, to propose making Asheville the labs’ first venue outside New York City. McConville has worked tirelessly since then to pull together the July event.
The Asheville group, comprising several dozen local, regional and global participants ranging from high-schoolers to senior citizens, will ultimately decide which issue it wants to tackle, McConville reports. But based on conversations with some of those involved, he expects environmental sustainability — the seventh of the eight Millennium Goals — to take center stage. After that, the moderated group will break into smaller working groups to tackle individual pieces of the puzzle, particularly as they relate to the Southern Appalachians. Step by step, the subgroups will come up with practical approaches to those challenges at both the individual and organizational levels.
Thompson’s suggestion, says McConville, “immediately started ideas to pop off in my head, just in the context of a lot of the stuff that’s going on here — with the number of nonprofits we have here, the number of people involved with environmental issues here on both a regional and global scale, the number of entrepreneurs that are interested in sustainable technologies. There seems to be an interesting brew going on here and in the region.”
And though he’s been involved with a number of local nonprofits, McConville says: “I hadn’t seen much of a methodology being applied. There’s a lot of talk and collaboration and creativity, especially with the city’s HUB Project.” But too often, he says, such groups — and particularly the bureaucracies — couldn’t seem to break through to the next level and actually get things done on a broader scale. In the end, the ideas would be bound up in a study that wound up collecting dust on a shelf.
“My take on it is, there are enough people that are interested and engaged and experienced at this point on a regional scale that we have a really good chance to come up with pretty interesting and innovative approaches,” he observes. “I’ve already seen it happen in different areas, and it’s really only a matter of facilitating a discussion so that we can manifest real solutions.”
But McConville the thinker — not to mention McConville the doer — sounds a bit exasperated that design science and a host of other technological advances are not being employed as they should in tackling problems here and abroad.
And if individuals and governments are ever going to make real headway in addressing the social and environmental problems we face, “We have to take that next step,” he declares. “It’s funny, but when you break big problems down, there really are often very simple solutions.”
Even an idiot can see that.