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New UIC 'Cyber-Commons' Wall Pops with 3-D Imagery

Seamlessly tiled LCD flat-screen displays stretching floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory "Cyber-Commons" have rendered digitally enhanced images since opening in 2009. On Nov. 11, EVL demonstrates Cyber-Commons' latest enhancement -- three-dimensional imagery, displayed along with traditional 2-D images.

"It's a very powerful way to communicate ideas," says Jason Leigh, EVL director and UIC professor of computer science. "It lets people work together, make sense of lots of information, and hopefully derive insights quicker. We've found it changes the way students work together."

The Cyber-Commons flat-screen displays are tiled on the wall to form a nearly cinematic classroom blackboard that Leigh describes as "democratic" in its use. Anyone in the room with a laptop or tablet device such as an iPad can wirelessly grab space on the Cyber-Commons wall and simultaneously display multiple images from documents to videos. Users can also call up stored images, positioning and sizing them with their fingers on a touch-sensitive display surface. That is made possible by EVL-developed software called SAGE -- Scalable Adaptive Graphics Environment -- which also enables Cyber-Commons 3-D to link via high-performance networks for real-time collaboration with facilities around the world.

"CC3D puts 2-D and 3-D on the same screen at the same time," said Maxine Brown, EVL's associate director. CC3D will initially use passive stereo technology to view 3-D. While passive stereo requires special glasses, they are not expensive like active stereo glasses that cost around $100, now used with consumer 3-D TVs.

"Our glasses cost less than a dollar," said Brown, who thinks it will be a few years before "auto-stereo" technology -- which does not need special glasses -- becomes widespread and cheap. In the meantime, Brown thinks $1 glasses will be affordable to schools, museums, medical centers and businesses that are likely to use 3-D Cyber-Commons facilities.

Using 2009 federal economic stimulus grants, EVL worked with Oregon-based Planar Systems to create a 3-D LCD, ultra-thin border flat-panel display wall that gives Cyber-Commons its new, added dimension. After working together on a display prototype, Planar provided EVL with customized technology, which they call the Clarity Matrix LCD Video Wall. Planar, a company specializing in high quality visualization and digital signage displays, gets a new product to market.

Leigh will test UIC's CC3D facility next spring when he teaches a video game development course collaboratively with a colleague at Louisiana State University. He said EVL's focus is on scientific research and educational use in medicine, engineering and chemistry, where adding 3-D images offers real insight and understanding.

"3-D is more than Hollywood gimmickry," said Leigh. "Humans understand information much more effectively in 3-D."

Visualizing a molecule, for example, in only two dimensions can lack the depth cues needed for full comprehension.

Geoscience is another field where 3-D adds substantial advantages. Leigh cited a study of male and female students that found females had typically performed more poorly in geospatial tests. But when stereoscopic 3-D capability was added, both males and females improved and the gender difference disappeared.

"It eliminates that barrier," Leigh said.

CC3D will also serve as a technology test bed for EVL's "Next-Generation CAVE" Automatic Virtual Environment facility, debuting a year from now. CAVE, developed 20 years ago at EVL and now commercialized by companies around the world, originally used projectors and very expensive 3-D glasses. Leigh calls the new display technology for CC3D bright and "gloriously beautiful."

"We'll be the first to build an LCD, non-projector-based CAVE," said Leigh. "We calculate that the display resolution will be on the order of what matches human vision."

UIC doctoral graduate Tom Peterka, now a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, is helping in both NG-CAVE and CC3D development with an eye on possible use of 3-D technology at America's national laboratories.

Paul Francuch | Newswise Science News
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