Democratizing advanced visualization technologies

Submitted by Indiana University on Thu, 01/17/2019 - 12:52

High-end visualization facilities such as projection-based CAVEs, tiled-LCD CAVE2s, and large-format tiled arrays of projectors or LCDs are tremendous technical achievements.  They are engaging and inspiring, and in the hands of technical experts, they can be extremely useful.  Unfortunately, these high-end systems suffer from inherent problems of high cost and high complexity that translate into accessibility challenges for users.  The high cost of these systems means that there is at most one at any given university or campus; thus, the resource has physical accessibility challenges which limit its use to those who are willing and able to relocate their activities to the facility and are able to schedule time on the system.  The high complexity of the system (usually involving Linux clusters, custom and distributed software, and specialized driver stacks) results in technical accessibility challenges, whereby only the most technically-skilled users can leverage the full capabilities of the system, or the facility must supply technical support staff dedicated to helping users operate the system.  Combined, these accessibility challenges create unintended obstacles to routine use which result in lower-than-expected levels of utilization. Thus, in spite of their tremendous potential, high-end visualization facilities often fall short of their potential to have wide impact and a broad user base.

Since the mid-2000s, the Advanced Visualization Lab (AVL) at Indiana University (IU) has been pursuing a “distributed visualization strategy” which is designed to complement its high-end, flagship facilities with an ever-increasing number of mid-scale facilities that are geographically distributed across our campuses.  (As part of IU’s university-wide IT support organization, AVL supports the use of advanced visualization technologies for research, education, creative activities, and outreach for all departments and all campuses.  IU has nearly 110,000 students on two major research campuses and six smaller regional campuses.) This initiative brings advanced visualization capabilities out of the high-end, R&D facility and integrates them into various spaces across the university where students, faculty, and staff regularly work, meet, and socialize.  This strategy has been extremely successful in growing our user base and broadening our impact; it allows advanced visualization technology to become a routine part of the scientific, creative, scholarly, or educational process, rather than being viewed as a special-access event or one-off technology. In short, it is a major step in democratizing advanced visualization technology access and use for all communities and missions of the university. 

IU’s distributed visualization initiative currently incorporates three types of systems, each addressing a core capability from across the advanced visualization and interface spectra: ultra-high resolution, virtual reality, and multi-touch interaction.

IQ-Walls for Ultra-high Resolution

IQ-Walls are AVL’s self-integrated solution for ultra-high-resolution tiled displays. Rather than running from a cluster, all IQ-Walls (ranging from eight to 32 screens) are driven by a single, high-end workstation running Microsoft Windows. This allows any member of the university community to access the system with their network ID and run any Windows or Web-based application they are accustomed to using on their laptop or workstation, except at a much larger size and resolution (8-32 times HD.) Typical uses include scientific and information visualization, geospatial mapping and analysis, virtual environment experiences, team design reviews, collaborative editing and coding, media showings, multi-source presentations, and group videoconferencing. Users can also opt to use HDMI input cables or streaming software (Mersive Solstice) to display single applications or entire desktops from their laptops or mobile devices at a scaled-up resolution.  To date, AVL has installed 20 IQ-Walls across five different campuses, including 14 at publicly accessible locations.  Several incorporate passive stereo 3D viewing or multi-touch overlays.  We have also assisted four external institutions with installing their own variation of an IQ-Wall. 

images of IQ-Walls at different locations at Indiana University
Sample IQ-Wall installations and use cases: (left) technology building multi-purpose room hosting a mapping exhibit; (middle) regional campus student center with large group presentation; (right) library commons with collaborative editing for student group work.

Reality Labs for Virtual Reality

Reality Labs are AVL’s model for creating highly-accessible and highly-capable virtual reality classrooms for general use. We add HMD technology (HTC Vives) to some number (between two and 10, depending on space) of Windows workstations in existing student computing or teaching labs. Software is provided mainly through SteamVR and includes a number of pre-installed exemplar apps that are either free or purchased by the University.  Users also have the ability to download additional free apps through a shared Steam account or purchase their own through personal accounts.  Use cases for Reality Labs include teaching, training, project work, research, exhibits, creative experiences, immersive media, and entertainment.  While Reality Labs are currently focused on virtual reality, they have been designed with the ability to incorporate emerging technologies for augmented reality or methods for capturing reality.  (Hence the all-purpose name, “Reality Lab”.) To date, AVL has deployed 70 Reality Stations in 12 different facilities across three campuses.

Reality Lab virtual reality systems used by students and faculty
Sample IU Reality Labs: (left) typical hardware setup (Reality Station); (middle) student lab in Media School with students immersed in the action; (right) teaching lab in School of Art, Architecture, and Design being used for architectural design reviews.

IQ-Tables for Multi-touch Interaction

IQ-Tables are AVL’s solution for interactive, multi-touch exhibit tables.  The current, third-generation system is built from a 65” 4K screen with built-in multi-touch capabilities, a Windows PC, and a mobile stand which allows the screen to be transitioned from a conventional vertical landscape position to a horizontal table position. Unlike IQ-Walls and Reality Labs, IQ-Tables are typically designed to support a dedicated exhibit for a few days to several months.  As such, it usually runs just a single application designed to highlight a digital collection or some aspect of a larger physical exhibit.  We leverage a common software development framework for interactive, multi-user, multi-touch, multi-orientation, multi-media presentations that was originally based on OpenExhibits and Flash; that framework has now been translated to a Web-based software stack using JavaScript and HTML5 standards. AVL has built eight IQ-Tables since 2012 (including three in the current generation) which have been used to display content for over 40 events and exhibits.

IQ-Tables being used to explore various content collections
IQ-Table samples: (left) IQ-Table third-generation hardware in drafting table mode; (middle) screenshot of interactive application with themed “piles” of visualization images to explore; (right) multiple users interacting with a map collection.

The Role of High-End Facilities

Within this environment of very accessible and very capable mid-range facilities, it is natural to ask if high-end visualization facilities are still necessary or desirable.  Our answer is a definitive “yes!” We believe that high-end visualization facilities (a.k.a. “flagship” or “central” facilities) play a unique and essential role in the overall visualization ecosystem, especially if they are designed to work seamlessly with the technologies and content in the mid-level facilities, and if they operate under similar access policies. The unique functions of the flagship visualization facility include: 1) serving the complex needs of the most advanced users and researchers; 2) offering an R&D space for technologists to help test and refine the next generation of technology or content to deploy to mid-range facilities; 3) providing a central collaboration and gathering space for interactions and exchange of ideas, especially between different university departments and/or different groups of IT experts; and 4) serving as the destination facility for users or classes who have matured in their use of visual technologies and whose work may have “outgrown” the capabilities of the mid-range facilities.

Flagship facilities - Reality Stage for VR and 32-tile reconfigurable IQ-Wall
Examples of advanced resources available in flagship facilities: (left) Reality Stage with support for wind, heat, and other environmental feedback via PIPES control system; (right) reconfigurable 32-tile IQ-Wall with stereo and tracking.


IU’s distributed visualization strategy has been highly successful in transferring a spectrum of advanced technologies out of the central lab and into the broader university environment where they can be utilized on a routine basis to have more meaningful and lasting impact. By supporting a family of related technologies (instead of just a single technology), we have avoided the challenges of the typical “one size fits all” approach. Our strategy has allowed us to significantly grow the number and types of users (students, faculty, and staff) and departments that can benefit from these technologies, and has been especially impactful for smaller, regional campuses and less-technically-oriented domains. Moreover, by positioning these technologies in highly accessible and visible places, outreach and advertising become natural byproducts of the installation – word of mouth and witnessing how others are utilizing technology are very effective means of growing communities. In sum, this distributed strategy is democratizing and normalizing the use of advanced visualization technologies for all parts of the university. 

-- by Eric Wernert and the IU "Collectome" Team (David Reagan, Guangchen Ruan, Esen Tuna)

[Up next time: We will discuss the practical considerations that influence the physical design, technology design, development workflows, and support mechanisms behind IU’s IQ-Walls and Reality Labs.]

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