Steve Beck (B.S. ’71 EECS): Giving Back and Getting a Lot in Return

December 2, 2007 by Abby Cohn
Steve Beck

Steve Beck

Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, Steve Beck (B.S. ’71 EECS) was placed on a strict television ration: one show per week. Sneaking around that parental edict, Beck would wake up early, switch on the family set, and find himself surprisingly transfixed by the TV test pattern. “I just have a natural affinity for anything video,” he says.

Beck, 57, has harnessed that passion with a vengeance. A noted artist specializing in the use of electronic video, Beck is also the developer of more than 500 commercial electronic products ranging from an energy management system to electronic toys and video games. Beck, whose electronic art is in the collections of such prominent institutions as The Museum of Modern Art, New York, was named EECS Alumnus of the Year in 2003.

Today, Beck is back on the Cal campus, pursuing a creative concept that harkens back to his early fascination with the geometry of the TV test pattern. Called NOOR, an Arabic and Farsi word for “light,” Beck’s project is transforming ancient Islamic mosaic patterns into animated electronic images through the latest computer graphics and animation technology. NOOR is part of a larger FIAT LUX research effort by Beck to use technology to integrate the study of art, science and cultures.

By putting a 21st-century spin on centuries-old Middle Eastern tiles, architecture and other geometric patterns, Beck aims to spotlight the beauty of these intricate designs. He also hopes to develop new understanding of the complex geometry behind the patterns and the algorithms needed to create their animated counterparts. Another goal is to inspire a new generation of youngsters to study mathematics.

“We can apply technology and the arts and come up with some improvements that enhance the quality of human life,” says Beck, a visiting fellow at the College since 2005 and now an executive in residence at the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology.

Beck has been an active alumnus and frequent guest lecturer on campus for years. When the late Dean Richard Newton suggested the visiting fellow appointment as a way to introduce students and faculty to leading engineers from the world of industry, Beck jumped at the chance. “It’s an opportunity for me to meet really smart faculty as well as be stimulated by students,” says Beck, who frequently swaps ideas with students and such prominent scholars as his former professor David Hodges. This spring, Beck will teach an upper division- and graduate-level course exploring entrepreneurship in the field of art and technology.

As the centerpiece of Beck’s work on campus, NOOR is attracting faculty and students from such diverse areas as the Department of Architecture and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The project’s benefits range from “pure aesthetic enjoyment to building bridges between cultures,” says Beck, whose chief collaborator is Professor Carlo Séquin, a computer graphics expert.

Last February, the public got a glimpse at NOOR’s potential. A giant LED screen placed outside Hearst Memorial Mining Building became the canvas for a “video light sculpture” featuring the dazzling patterns. Building on that screening, which was part of the Berkeley EECS Annual Research Symposium, Beck hopes to permanently install similar sculptures on the Berkeley campus and at museums and other structures internationally.

As a new member of the Lawrence Hall of Science Advisory Council, Beck is pursuing a separate project demonstrating his commitment to using video art as an educational tool. The undertaking, which he calls Big Video Science, will feature images from NOOR, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and elsewhere. It is intended to excite youngsters about science and math while commemorating LHS’s 40th anniversary next year.

“I’m giving back and I’m getting a lot in return,” Beck says.