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Electrical Engineering: A Pathway to New Forms of Creativity

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Electrical Engineering senior Keaton Shurilla pictures a future where he can roll up to the club and experience a 360-degree audio system - not through strategically-spaced speakers, but through speakers with the technological prowess to project sound everywhere in the room. In that imagined future, he wants someone across the world to tune in with a virtual reality system so sophisticated it feels like they’re in the club with him. He is combining his passions for technology and the arts to make that future more feasible.

“I was always EE ride or die, nothing else,” he said.

His foray into electrical engineering began at age twelve. The background music on a flash video game held his attention and inspired him to try writing electronic music like Daft Punk. But a twelve-year-old couldn’t afford the sort of instruments Daft Punk and other electronic artists used, so Shurilla took matters into his own hands and took up do-it-yourself electronics.

Enter high school, and Shurilla performed his music live using gameboys and laptops. He became fascinated with the people who created electronic music hardware.

“This is really cool,” he remembers thinking. “How do you make that stuff? How do you get smart enough to write that?”

He wanted to do it himself. Yamaha and Roland had engineers making DJ equipment full time; he could study electrical engineering and join them. He saw engineering as “a pathway to new forms of creativity.”

By the time he came to BYU, his passion for music had grown into an interest in the synergy between music, the arts, and technology. He saw kids picking up powerful software and writing music without limitations because of digital audio sampling, and he saw Spotify feeding users algorithmically-presented content.

“There’s a ton of people in humanities looking at this, but fewer in the engineering realm,” he said. “To really push this trend forward you need the technical know-how.”

So he made a pact with himself to study engineering for his undergraduate degree, even if he felt more inclined to study music or acting. For his graduate degree, he would bring the two realms together.

He honored his pact and learned the tools of the trade in BYU’s electrical engineering program.

“I learned how to do some of [the things I wanted],” he said. “I also learned that some of that stuff I really hate doing.”

That stuff included analog design and circuits. Shurilla described some classes as old-school ways of doing electronics, which would delight the music purists who exclusively use analog synthesizers, but he did not identify as a purist. “Much easier to get a digital piano,” he said.

But he also found something he loved - Dr. Daniel Smalley’s lab. Smalley’s research centers around creating digital environments people can see, touch, and hear, like the Star Trek holodeck. Shurilla saw in the research an opportunity to bring his interests in art and technology together.

“Getting involved in research in Dr. Smalley’s lab has easily been the most positive part of my BYU experience,” he said.

He got involved with acoustic holography, which uses ultrasonic speakers to give haptic feedback. In other words, they are manipulating air pressure to create invisible objects people can feel in midair.

Shurilla is also involved in the honors program, where he applies his research on acoustic holography to the thesis he’s writing on creating braille out of thin air. He envisions a world where the blind can receive texts by positioning their fingers over a phone speaker and feeling braille dots made from air pressure. The speakers themselves, he said, limit the potential of cool soundbased technology, so he and his co-workers are making their own speakers in the cleanroom - really small and really loud.

He will graduate this year and pursue a graduate degree in informatics at what he calls “the Japanese version of Dr. Smalley’s lab” - the Digital Nature Group in the University of Tsukuba. For the Japanese minor who served in the Tokyo South mission and completed a summer internship in Tokyo, such an opportunity is golden.

Nothing is off-limits at Tsukuba; Shurilla said he’s seen them use lasers to create art in mid-air and use soap bubbles to make displays. He discovered it while doing research through IMMERSE and reading papers.

“A lot of papers I thought were super cool were coming from this one research lab,” he said. During his interview with the Digital Nature Group, they were just as interested in the work he did in Smalley’s lab.

He will work in their acoustics subgroup, which has created a speaker array that can focus sound in different spots in a room, and the metamaterials subgroup, which is working on a holographic near-eye display among other things.

One thing that will separate Shurilla’s informatics degree from engineering will be the existence of user studies. Informatics is all about learning how people interact with the tech. There are a lot of technical barriers to bringing concepts to life, but Shurilla is interested in what happens after they do.

“It raises a lot of interesting questions about how people are going to use that for arts and how will it blend into society,” he said, specifically referring to holographic near-eye displays. “Questions you need to consider as you make the technology, rather than waiting until it’s finished and then considering the consequences.”

As for himself, he’s optimistic about what technology can do. Even though personally takes a minimalistic approach to technology and doesn’t own a smartphone, he wants to see that future club with the 360 audio system and super-cool VR come to life.

“I’m an optimist for sure, one-hundred percent,” he said. “The future of technology and arts is so exciting.”