Science + Technology

UCLA’s Virtual Pioneers: Remapping Los Angeles


A bold new experiment incommunity-based computing is currently underway in downtown Los Angeles. The project, known as Remapping LA, is being spearheaded bya group of digital innovators from UCLA's Center for Research in Engineering,Media and Performance (REMAP), a collaboration between the UCLA School ofTheater, Film and Television and the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineeringand Applied Science.

"Thepurpose of Remapping LA is to understand what is going on socially andculturally in this location," said Jeff Burke, executive director of REMAP. "Wewant to provide a resource for local communities and other citizens so thatthey can explore first the history of the [Los AngelesState HistoricPark] site, and then the communitiessurrounding it and the geography of L.A.,in every sense of the word."

RemappingLA is partially funded by a UCLA Center for CommunityPartnerships grant.

In the current, initial phase of Remapping LA,students enrolled in UCLA's Engaged Media Workshop fan out from a 19th-centuryice factory near Chinatown, armed with advanced mobile phones, GPS devices,digital cameras and geographic information systems, to compile a database ofphotos, maps, videos and audio recordings that, when combined with historicalmaterial, will provide a comprehensive profile of the legendary Los AngelesState Historic Park, an incongruous tract of open land near the city's firstcenter.

In the project's second phase, the new technologiesdeveloped by the students will be used to create something akin to a virtualguidebook for visitors to the park site. Later, the same tools will be turnedover to residents in various parts of the city to facilitate the explorationand mapping of their own neighborhoods.

"The Remapping LA project is an ideal example of ourcenter's research mission," said UCLA engineering professor William Kaiser,co-director of REMAP. "We have always focused on combining the creative andtechnology development talents of students and faculty with a goal of majorcultural contribution. The State Historic Parkopportunity is exciting because the systems we develop will be valuable for avery large community and will have both a permanent presence and a continuousevolution as an urban laboratory."

Digital artist FabianWagmister, a UCLA associate professor of film, television and digital media whospearheaded the effort and serves as co-director of Remapping LA, compares theway the system will evolve to the user-created treasure trove of information onthe Web site Wikipedia.

"Because anyone who uses thesite can post there, you might expect it to get clogged up withmisinformation," he said. "But what happens is that wrong or one-sided stuffgets corrected or deleted, and the good stuff gets tagged and rises to the top.

"One of the greatadvantages of our approach from the point of view of the Department of Parks,"he said, "is that it is all done with virtual overlays. It can be implementedwithout any physical impact on the site whatsoever, therefore allowing constantrenovation and participatory evolution."

The works thatare created will be exhibited both in the park and in the adjacent Chiparaki Cultural Civic Computing Center.

Oneclear difference between this enterprise and Wikipedia is that Remapping LAwill draw people away from their computers and into the neighborhood, since theoverlay interface is site-specific and will only work if one is at thelocation. The "mapping" that results as community members fan out and explorecan be used as the basis for indoor and outdoor multimedia installations,including, perhaps, animated billboards celebrating the cultural history of thearea.

Inorder to visualize how this might work, imagine that you are walking east alongTemple Streetin downtown Los Angeles,keeping track of your progress on a hand-held electronic GPS device. Just asyou're crossing Beaudry Avenue, with Dodger Stadium looming overhead, you get aping on the device, and a flag pops up on the on-screen map. The flag isalerting you to the fact that an earlier user of this interactive guidebook has"attached" a digital image or a snippet of information to these unique GPScoordinates. The sort of alerts that appear will varyfrom user to user. For example, if you had expressed an interest in "LosAngeles History," the on-screen alert could take you to an old-fashioneddaguerreotype photo and a brief biography of the man for whom Beaudry Avenue isnamed — Prudent Beaudry, mayor of Los Angeles from 1874 to 1876 and a real estatedeveloper who put up the first residential buildings on nearby Bunker Hill.

But the use of the technology to create interactive guidebooks isonly the tip of the iceberg. "Think of it this way," EngagedMedia Workshop project coordinator Chase Knowles said. "Every day, our societyforces us to sift through mountains of media just to survive and understand oursurroundings. Being able to design and use media to self-define your ownenvironment can be a really exciting and empowering thing for many people."

The land just east ofChinatown on which the 32-acre LosAngeles State Historic Park sits was the site of the city's firstrailroad yard and is nicknamed the "cornfield" because of the corn seeds thatspilled from railroad hopper cars around 1879 and eventually producedcornstalks. Ardent community preservationists and state park officials, whopaid $36 million in 2001 to acquire the site, consider it a microcosm of Los Angeles history.Spanish explorers camped near the spot when they first set foot in what is nowdowntown Los Angeles.It is also where the city's first depot and hotel were built.

The Center for Research in Engineering, Media andPerformance, or REMAP, ( a joint effort of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and theUCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and AppliedScience. REMAP brings together world-class faculty and students from both campusunits to explore and create new, enriching cultural forms and empowering socialsituations through the thoughtful interweaving of engineering, the arts andcommunity development.

The UCLA Schoolof Theater, Film and Television offers its students a unique blend ofscholarship and practical training, bringing together the highest levels ofprofessionalism with the social mission of a public university. Its landmarkintegration of theater, film, television and digital media and its outstandingfaculty and facilities nurture creative innovation, personal vision and socialresponsibility. Alumni include such notables as Allison Anders, Lee Breuer,Charles Burnett, Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Robbins, Moctesuma Esparza, ToddHolland, Gregory Nava, Alexander Payne, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Tim Robbins,Brad Silberling, John Schumacher and Audrey Wells.

Established in 1945, the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science offers28 academic and professional degree programs, including an interdepartmentalgraduate degree program in biomedical engineering. Ranked among the top 10engineering schools at public universities nationwide, the school is home toseven multimillion-dollar interdisciplinary research centers in spaceexploration, wireless sensor systems, nanomanufacturing and defensetechnologies, which are funded by top national and professional agencies. Formore information, visit

The UCLA Centerfor Community Partnerships is the driving force behind the university'scommitment to civic engagement with communities throughout Los Angeles. Founded in 2002 as part of theuniversity's UCLA in LA initiative, the center is dedicated to developingpartnerships between UCLA scholars and local nonprofit organizations to produceacademic projects connected to community-based applications that will improvethe quality of life for Los Angelesresidents. The projects are designed to support children, youth and families,to foster economic development, and to enrich arts and culture. To date, the centerhas facilitated and funded nearly 100 academic projects involving faculty,staff, graduate students and nonprofit organization partners, totaling more than $2 million in privatedonations.


UCLA is California'slargest university, enrolling approximately 38,000 students per year. It offersdegrees from the UCLA College of Letters and Science and 11 professionalschools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the topfive universities and colleges nationwide in total research-and-developmentspending, receiving more than $820 million a year in competitively awardedfederal and state grants and contracts. UCLA employs more than 27,000 facultyand staff, has more than 350,000 living alumni and has been home to five NobelPrize recipients.



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