USF's Advanced Visualization Center Has A New Way to Look at Things

Aug 9, 2012

It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie like "Minority Report" -- 3-D image pops up off a monitor, then a person reaches out to touch the image and actually feels something. Such activity is becoming reality at USF's new Advanced Visualization Center.

Working in conjunction with USF’s Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies, the Center has already put together some of its first high-tech images.

AIST director Lori Collins and other researchers travel to foreign lands to make 3-dimensional scans of historic sites and ancient artifacts to share with their students who can't make the trip.

“We have panoramic imagery; we have all of this 3-dimensional scan data that is so detailed that we can essentially do a walkthrough of the whole area," said Collins. "Because we’ve documented it in that way, all of those students are going to be virtual travelers.”

Howard Kaplan runs the Visualization Center. It’s his job to take data from teachers like Collins and turn it into eye-catching presentations.

“One day I’m working on Mayan monuments," told USF News. "The next I’m working on a pterosaur fossil, the next I’m looking at jellyfish data.”

Kaplan spoke to USF News at the Center’s opening. He says, this fall, the Center will serve as a classroom. Only instead of a chalkboard, its’ centerpiece is a huge video wall made up of 16 customized high-resolution 3-D monitors that boast a total of 20 million pixels. That compares quite favorably to the 8 million pixels found in in your average IMAX theater screen.

But beyond just showing incredibly detailed images and videos, the wall is interactive. For example, Collins plans to hook an X-Box Kinect to it when she teaches courses on historic preservation and museum visualization.

“I’ve got it tied to 3-D software so that when I move my hand, I’m actually moving a sixty ton monument. I can spin it around, I can show different things with just gestures, so students are going to see and learn and participate in different ways than they’ve ever done in a traditional setting.”

And here's where the "reach out and touch it" moment comes. Archaeology PhD student Joseph Evans says the latest haptic technology allows you to have the sensation of feeling an object by simply touching it with a special tool or stylus.

“We can have this digital monument and with that haptic device, you can drag it along the sides, you can feel it, that’s an entirely different way of interacting with digital information, cause normally you see there’s a thing on a screen and I can’t touch it, now I can almost touch it, I can feel the nooks and crannies and all of the glyphs, that’s incredibly different.”

The Center is funded mainly by student technology fees—which Collins says is good, because that keeps the focus on teaching and learning.

“Most universities, if they have a visualization center, it’s primarily attached to a research unit, they’re using it for a very narrow focus, they’re not concerned with making it to the wider audience for student interactivity," according to Collins.  

"This is all about students, this is all about getting people in there, teaching and sharing information in different ways with students.”

In addition to Collins’ courses, the Advanced Visualization Center will host four other classes this fall, including digital video and a psychology course called “Visualization and the Brain.”

The Center will be open to the public as well as businesses looking to put together their own 3-D presentations. For more information, visit the Center's website.