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April 12, 2004

'Envision Center' brings depth and feeling to Purdue research

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – High-tech spelunkers at Purdue University will soon have a special computerized "Cave," within which they will transform themselves into hunters and gatherers of complex information. This week, the public can have a look inside for themselves.

Hong Tan demonstrates Access Grid
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The Cave, a special facility allowing three-dimensional visualization of data, is part of Purdue's Envision Center for Data Perceptualization, opening today (Monday, 4/12) beneath the Purdue Memorial Union. The center will allow far more life-like simulation of real-world phenomena, from storm systems to cellular life, and will help far-flung teams of engineers to collaborate on projects from automobile design to oil prospecting. Once connected to the Teragrid, a high-speed computer network for data transmission, the center will become one of the most capable facilities in the country for the practice of computational science.

"Today we are being deluged with information, and scientists need better tools to help them make sense of it," said Gary Bertoline, associate vice president for discovery resources and professor of computer graphics technology in Purdue's School of Technology. "The center will be ideal for helping researchers understand very large amounts of data by helping them see it, feel it and observe it in ways that make intuitive, as well as logical, sense. It's a novel blending of computer science, engineering, perception technology and art that we believe will provide a boost to science and society."

Access Grid
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The interdisciplinary center, which also includes a next-generation telecommunications facility and computers that simulate solid objects via "haptics" displays, is unusual among visualization facilities because of the combination of technologies and disciplines it incorporates.

"Having all of these devices and technologies in one facility, combined with the outstanding expertise of the Envision Center staff, gives this facility a potential for impact that isn't found in many such centers," said Jim Bottum, vice president for information technology. "But what really makes the Envision Center special, at least to me, is that it isn't emerging from a single research group or center, but rather as a universitywide collaboration with full faculty involvement from a broad range of disciplines. This means that this facility will have a large, cross-cutting and measurable impact on many research efforts at Purdue."

Visiting the Envision Center will be possible at several public events after today's 11 a.m. invitation-only formal opening ceremony. Visitation opportunities include:

• Wednesday (4/14), 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. During the Teaching and Learning with Technology Conference (TLT), tours will begin every 15 minutes, leaving from the second floor of Stewart Center.

• Thursday (4/15), 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. As part of the TLT conference, visualization workshops will be held in the center. Workshops have limited enrollment; a schedule of workshops can be found online.

• Friday (4/16), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be an open house for Purdue students.

• Saturday (4/17), 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The center will be open during Spring Fest (Saturday only) for public tours.

• Tours also can be arranged the third Friday of every month.

Visitors will be permitted to see all the major technologies that make up the center, many of which only exist in a few locations worldwide. Caves – virtual-reality environments that allow viewers to see and manipulate 3-D images with the aid of special goggles – have already been used by private industry to display life-size virtual prototypes of car designs and floor plans of buildings that haven't been constructed.

"Scientists can also use Caves to envision such complex systems as molecular models, atmospheric systems and galaxies," Bertoline said. "We already have more than a dozen researchers overseeing projects that will make use of the Cave, and it has a large viewing area for student observers as well."

Several researchers from both campus and the community are already making use of the center's technologies.

Scott King, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences in the School of Science, is using the Cave to analyze the flow of the Earth's mantle far beneath our feet, movement that influences plate tectonics in the planet's crust.

"Our computer models of the mantle have complicated structures that are difficult to visualize on the usual flat screen or paper," he said. "With the center's technology, we are able to view our data in new ways because we use stereo imaging to give us much better perception of the third dimension."

Melanie Morgan, assistant professor of communication in the School of Liberal Arts, is working with the Envision Center on a project to help students overcome communication apprehension or fear of public speaking.

"Students will be able to rehearse their presentations in front of a virtual audience, enabling them to build speaking skills in less stressful situations," she said. "The virtual audience can be programmed to act in a variety of ways and will include realistic behaviors and feedback such as applauding at the conclusion of a talk."

The Cave also will assist physicians in the community such as Arnett Clinic's Rick Chua, a neurosurgeon who will use it to image areas around the brain and spine.

"Using advanced imaging techniques has tremendously improved the quality of care we can offer our patients," he said. "Because of the Envision Center's help with navigational imaging techniques used in brain and spine surgery, our local patients will be able to recover faster and have smaller incisions and less pain than ever before."

Another feature of the center is the access grid, a wall-sized group of high-resolution computer monitors linked to telecommunications equipment. The facility can be used to help groups conduct meetings and share information from several remote locations.

"Technology, science and business are increasingly interdependent, and Purdue students will need to be familiar with all these disciplines if they are to succeed," Bertoline said. "The access grid will be more than just a teleconferencing facility – it will allow students to learn about the equipment behind modern communications and data exchange, which is an essential part of international business."

Telecommunications may be familiar to most, but the center also has a laboratory – its haptics facility – that will likely seem more unusual. Haptics provides sensory feedback that goes beyond sight and sound, and it offers a new dimension to future computer output.

"Wearing special gloves, you can 'touch' a simulation of a ball and actually 'feel' its curve under your fingertips," Bertoline said. "The technology is still under development, and Purdue students will have the chance to be part of that development."

Bertoline also is the chairman of the International Visualization Consortium, a group of facilities similar to the Envision Center located in several countries. The goal of the consortium, Bertoline said, is to ensure that the centers are able to collaborate on solving difficult problems together.

"Much of this technology is new, and finding applications for it will be more effectively accomplished as a group," he said. "You can also get more heads thinking about problems if scientists at different centers can share data with one another. Just as most of the powerful data processing today is done by computers at distributed locations, linking centers will help human beings halfway around the world from one another solve difficult problems together."

The center is organized under Information Technology at Purdue, which is responsible for planning and coordinating the central computing and telecommunications systems on campus.

The facility is a collaboration between the public and private sector, with funding provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation, corporate partners including IBM and Intel, and Purdue.

Writer: Chad Boutin, (765) 494-2081,

Sources: Jim Bottum, (765) 496-2266,

Gary Bertoline, (765) 494-0541,

Melanie Morgan, (765) 494-3305,

Scott King, (765) 494-3696,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Hong Tan (far left), of Purdue University's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, demonstrates the Access Grid to Purdue President Martin C. Jischke today (Monday, 4/9) during the opening of the university's Envision Center for Data Perceptualization. The main screen of the Access Grid, on which complex audiovisual information including 3-D images can be projected, also is visible from inside the control room (foreground). The facility is part of the new center, designed to create virtual-reality environments that can help scientists and engineers with projects from oil prospecting to weather pattern and drug molecule analysis. (Purdue News Service photo/Dave Umberger)

A publication-quality photo is available at

Shown is a view of Purdue University's Access Grid from inside its control room, where operators can project audiovisual information, including 3-D images, into the viewing area for a large audience. The grid, a next-generation telecommunications facility inside Purdue's new Envision Center, will help students and faculty collaborate on highly technical projects requiring the exchange of complex information between remote locations. The grid is one facility within the center, which is designed to create virtual-reality environments that can help scientists and engineers with projects from automobile design to weather pattern and drug molecule analysis. (Purdue News Service photo/Dave Umberger)

A publication-quality photo is available at

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