Colleges Look to 'Big-Screen Research' to Stay Relevant and Collaborative

Joey Pulone for The Chronicle

A video wall, part of a new "learning commons" at the Johns Hopkins U., is demonstrated by Gregory D. Hager (left), chair of computer science, and Sayeed Choudhury, associate dean for research data management.
April 22, 2012

When VCR's became affordable, the film industry worried that people would stop going to the movies. Theaters haven't gone away, but they have changed, with many now focused on delivering spectacles that can be seen only in a grand setting, with a big screen and booming sound.

Traditional colleges now face a similar challenge, thanks to free or low-cost courses delivered online. One response may come from a Hollywood-style trend emerging on some campuses: large-scale video walls. These banks of high-definition monitors are designed to let students and researchers show images in a larger-than-life form to see details more clearly and collaborate better. Call it Big-Screen Research.

Here at the Johns Hopkins University, for instance, a 12-by-7-foot video display will soon greet visitors to the main library. It's a feature of a new "learning commons" wing, where the emphasis is not on books but on online materials and group-project work. The video wall, which will let students and professors share information from their smartphones or laptops, is designed to get people's heads out of their computers.

"More and more goes on in the virtual world, and people are just staring at screens," says Gregory D. Hager, a professor of computer science and chair of the department at Johns Hopkins, who is working on the wall together with library officials. "It's sort of a fracturing process."

As more and more educational content is available online, he argues, the university needs to pay attention to the benefits of collaborative work on the campus. "It's about people interacting with people, building the community of scholars," he says.

Only a few colleges have built such video walls so far, most of which are themselves research projects. Duke University's library has one, and Brown University plans to unveil one in its humanities library this fall. The equipment is getting more affordable—Mr. Hager initially expected to spend $100,000 on the wall, but the price tag will be closer to $25,000.

On some campuses, video walls have been installed more as promotional showpieces than as spaces for academic work. A few admissions offices, student centers, and other college buildings now use them to display information or as a visual element that sends a message that the college is high tech.

To the project leaders at Hopkins, those were examples of what not to do. Mr. Hager said a giant bank of monitors at one college initially drew oohs and aahs but is now largely ignored. "It was a spectacle," he told me. "And the problem with spectacles is they die out."

But he says he's giving his students the chance to experiment with a technology that will soon become a standard in business environments, especially in design-focused industries like architecture. "It's going to be like the drafting table of this century."

Not 'Minority Report'

Last week I got a sneak peak at Hopkins's wall, which at the moment is in a garage-like computer-science laboratory nicknamed the "robotorium."

The rig consists of 12 wide-screen monitors linked together to form one rectangular display. It's topped by a video-game component called Kinect, made by Microsoft for its Xbox to let people control games using gestures. Many academics and software developers now use the low-cost Kinect to control computers as well.

Kel Guerin, a doctoral student in computer science who serves as my guide, pulls up a few projects that he and other programmers are building for the wall. One simply displays two high-resolution pictures side by side, to let researchers compare them. He puts two medieval manuscripts on the screen.

Sayeed Choudhury, associate dean for research data management, who is helping to lead the project, says an art-history researcher asked for that function, complaining that the best she could do otherwise was to put two slides side by side on a light table. "She said, 'I want to be able to dance with the manuscripts,'" says Mr. Choudhury.

The screens aren't standard TV's you could pick up at Best Buy. They are designed to deliver pictures in extremely high resolution. One application being developed here involves images from a researcher's attempt to map neurons in the brains of mice. Because the video wall is interactive, scientists will be able to zoom in or zoom out on such brain images by simply moving their arms in front of the display.

The developers are aware that the system seems straight out science fiction—it's similar to the computers in the 2002 movie Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise's character searches files by swiping his hands in front of a bank of computer screens, moving data like a conductor leading an orchestra.

This interface isn't quite up to that Hollywood level, however. When I step up to try it, I extend my left arm toward a "menu" button and wait for the selection to activate. The cursor moves to the correct spot, but the system suddenly crashes. Mr. Hager sounds more curious than frustrated as he watches. "You provided a unique crash," he later says, as if to thank me for participating in the research.

Mr. Choudhury notes that one of his challenges is "managing expectations" about how smoothly Hopkins's homegrown system can work. It's going to be in one of the most public areas on campus—each year the university's main library has a "gate count" of more than a million visits—so he wants to make sure people understand that it's also a research project.

To Mr. Hager, any glitch should serve as a challenge to computer-science students on the campus, who will be invited to work on improving the software to make it perform the way they've seen in the movies. "We're not there yet, but you can be part of getting to it," he says.

Several computer-science students are on a team that meets weekly to help build the software. One of them, Kyle Mercer, says he learns more through such projects than he does in the classroom. "The most learning I get is messing around on my own," he says. "You really don't know it until you apply it."

Mr. Choudhury hopes that applied learning of that kind will now happen in the library.

He invites me to join him for a tour of the new library wing where the video wall will hang when the building opens this fall. We don hard hats and check out the 42,000-square-foot space as dozens of workers lay floor tiles and put in cabling.

"The library has for a long time been a laboratory for the humanities," he tells me, as he talks about computer-science courses that might soon meet inside the library to use the new equipment. "This wall is going to help this become a laboratory for the scientists and engineers."

Making the Digital Visual

For college libraries, Big-Screen Research symbolizes the size of their digital investments these days.

"When people come into libraries, they expect to see books, and they identify the libraries with books even though they've been shifting so much to digital materials," says Joan K. Lippincott, associate executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, a group that promotes digital innovation on campuses. "Libraries need to find a way to make digital information visual so that people come to understand the kind of information that's being developed in digital formats."

Using video walls to display research data has been going on for years within some science labs, she notes. One of the largest is the Highly Interactive Parallelized Display Wall, or HIPerWall, at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2. It's been only in the past couple of years that such displays have moved to more visible parts of campuses, like libraries. "In the past you had to belong to a specialized institute or research center to get your hands on this stuff," Ms. Lippincott says.

Harriette Hemmasi, university librarian at Brown, says she was inspired to build a video wall after visiting a high-tech building in South Korea, where some rooms had interactive displays on walls, ceilings, and other surfaces.

"I moved a video on the table onto the floor and then flipped it on the wall," she recalls. "I think that this is our future."

The Brown library's video wall should be in place by this fall and will cost about $1-million, raised with donations made specifically for the project.

That's a hefty price tag at a time of tight library budgets. Cost is even more of a factor when you consider that officials expect that the hardware will need to be "refreshed" about every five years. That means buying new monitors to avoid having the wall come to represent a college's outdated technology.

Duke installed its "media wall" three years ago, thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The cost was about $100,000, and officials are now planning for its replacement with newer components, says Todd Berreth, a research programmer with the university's Visualization Technology Group.

The wall has been a hit with students and researchers, he says, and he expects the money for the upgrade to come through. "Everyone in charge is incredibly supportive of the project," he says.

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