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Summary of Pushing Boundaries in Information Visualization: Using Virtual, Immersive and Interactive Technologies in Research & Practice

Summary by Mike Brown, 2008-2009 cc:asis&t Program Committee Chair

On September 13, 2008, cc:asis&t co-sponsored a day-long workshop titled "Pushing Boundaries in Information Visualization: Using Virtual, Immersive, and Interactive Technologies in Research & Practice." The Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) also co-sponsored the event, which took place in three of its high-technology rooms located in UNC-CH's Manning Information Technology Services (ITS) Building. RENCI's goal is to provide high technology to the campus community to aid research and to provide benefits to the state of North Carolina. The speakers included RENCI developers and UNC researchers who employ these technologies in their disciplines. Highlights of the day included:

  • A tour and demo of RENCI's Dome Room, an immersive dome-based video projection environment. The room was dominated by a large circular screen, 15 feet in diameter. Picture a miniature IMAX screen, tilted so that when standing in front of it you have to look up slightly. The curved screen provides approximately 180+ degree field of vision so that the displayed images and video totally fill one's visual field. Because the Dome is an immersive environment, it conveys the effects of 3D without needing anyone to wear special glasses. Charles Finley, Research Associate Professor, School of Medicine, and Department of Otolaryngology, and his team are working with RENCI to produce a computational model of the cochlea to aid surgically installed cochlear implants into profoundly deaf patients. The goal would be to eventually create a construction of a patient's cochlea using computed tomography (CT) imaging data to aid in more precise electrode placement. Mr. Finley showed a fly-through of a spiral-shaped cochlea model. As the camera went round and round, an inset diagram showed an overall view of the cochlea and the camera's current position.
  • A tour and demo of RENCI's Social Computing Room, whose multiple projectors and speakers turn the room's 4 walls into canvases that can display giant PC desktops, immersive videos, interactive presentations, or other projections. RENCI is looking into adapting the room to Microsoft's touch-table called Surface and embedding the room into Second Life so that one could see that virtual world's surroundings on all the walls.

    An example of the room's immersive and interactive qualities-and illustrating RENCI's point that the humanities can benefit from this technology also-was provided by Joyce Rudinsky, a visual artist and Associate Professor of Communication Studies at UNC. Rudinsky's interactive art project, "Spectacular Justice," explores the issue of capital punishment and employs the room's technical qualities to make the piece's statements about mass media more personal. Attendees were given Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) badges when they entered the room so that their movements were tracked as they wandered through. By tracking the person's movements throughout the room, the media installation determined what snippet of video or audio to play or display next. This blend of interactivity and content makes the experience unique for each person who encounters it.

  • The end-of-day panel discussion offered participants about 5-10 minutes to share their thoughts on virtual, immersive or interactive technology and surrounding issues. Various presenters recapped their earlier presentations, while others stated their particular research interests.

    Gaming technology and finding a way to move it into the academic mainstream stimulated a lot of discussion. Elizabeth (Libby) Evans, Academic Outreach Specialist for ITS's Division of Teaching and Learning, described her interest in applying games and gaming technologies to the academic curriculum. Evans believed the effort could encourage disparate parts of the campus eco-system to participate, as creating a gaming environment would involve writing, art, data, costuming, and theater skills, as well as programming and engineering.

    Evans said many of the criticisms she hears about gaming environments remind her of similar comments made when email was introduced to the campus-too hard to use, too expensive, no access, who really needs this technology, and so on.

    The free-form discussion then moved toward how to get not just gaming technology but RENCI technology out of ITS and more into the campus mainstream. Knisley said that people look at the technology and think they can't use it, but that RENCI's mission is encourage people to believe they can. He added that, since today's supercomputing is on the desktop in 10 years time, one of RENCI's goals should be to show people what will be available to them later and to get their thinking started on how to use the technology.