Background: the problem with unusual displays
Over the last few years, display walls have garnered significant interest in the library community as visible investments towards a digital, collaborative, visual approach to academic endeavors. As some observers have noted, display walls have been around a while in the academic context, and more are being installed all the time.
Brown University Library was early to the display wall scene, opening the Patrick Ma Digital Scholarship Lab (with its 16×7 foot display wall) in late 2012:
There is a problem, though: these walls are expensive, and there are few out-of-the-box applications that immediately serve to demonstrate their value. Two examples that we have found are:
Google Earth, which, as anyone who has managed a display wall will tell you, is spectacular on a display wall:
... and Adobe Lightroom, which we have put to good use in the context of visual research, sorting, comparing, and processing large numbers of images:
In addition to out-of-the-box applications, we have also built custom wall-oriented applications from scratch — for example, this application to explore and visualize a digitized collection of historical plant specimens (an ongoing collaboration with the Brown University Herbarium):
Thinking about a solution
These examples represent exceptions to a general rule: there are few easy-to-setup, easy-to-use, flexible applications to show off the potential of display wall hardware.
Custom-built solutions require significant investment of staff time with considerable programming and design skills. Many institutions (including Brown) do not have the resources to develop such tools in a way that can be sustained over time, but nevertheless want to demonstrate the value of their display wall investment.
(There are also commercial solutions available, but they are typically expensive, locked down, and limited)
Faced with this situation, we began to design a generalized framework for developing interactive display wall content and applications.
Going in, we had some fundamental criteria:
- It has to be relatively simple and easy to use, ideally accessible to non- or minimally-technical staff
- Conversely, it should allow those with technical expertise to use their skills
- It has to be flexible enough to encompass a number of use cases familiar in the academic context
- It should be lightweight and require relatively little infrastructure
- It should feature a modular, extensible architecture to allow for easy modifications by the broader community
In thinking about how to balance simplicity and flexibility, we asked ourselves a basic question:
What are the foundational functions required to provide a platform for innovation?
Thinking back on our experience developing display wall applications, we identified four foundational functions:
- Wall Geometry
Visual elements can be aligned and sized to accommodate unusual screen dimensions and features such as a bezel grid.
Elements can change over time according to user-defined sequences.
- Assignable Content
Content can be distributed and updated across arbitrary displays or sets of displays.
- Multi-agent Control
Commands can be sent between devices, allowing for remote user-to-wall control and other interactions.
With these four functions, a framework would support multiple use cases, including:
- Interactive digital exhibits, in which viewers interact via a touch controller (kiosk-style) or cell phones
- Digitally enhanced collaborative classes, in which content and shared documents are pushed to students
- Participatory presentations, in which audiences receive supplemental materials as the lecture is delivered
- Digital repository viewing interfaces, in which users interactively select and display items on the display wall using their cell phone
Glider: Pilot and future as part of ImmersiveScholar
With these criteria and foundational functions, we built a rough proof-of-concept prototype and called it Glider. Here is an early prototype of Glider being used in a faculty presentation:
(See the Glider project page for a short video of the Glider pilot in action.)
With the funding from the Immersive Scholar project, we will be turning our in-house prototype into a production-ready open source tool.
We will use the grant period to fix up the pilot's rough spots and expand it where needed, package it for easy distribution and installation, and run pilots to test the system in the classroom, the exhibit space, and the digital archive. Given the time and resources, we also hope to develop a visual authoring interface.
Contact and more information
If you're interesting in finding out more information about the project, you can visit the Glider website, or feel free to contact the project's PI, Patrick Rashleigh (edward_rashleigh at brown.edu).