Fantastic Technologies

In the 1966 science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage, a group of courageous individuals are placed inside a submarine, shrunk, and injected into the human body on an important mission. During the course of their journey, they travel throughout the body, encountering various challenges as they navigate through the bloodstream, heart, and other organs. While literal travel throughout the human body has not happened, 3D visualization and immersive technologies are enabling us to “see” inside the human body — and into other realms — as never before.

For many years, planetariums used the concepts intrinsic in 3D visualization and immersive technology to transport participants throughout our solar system. Today, the latest generation of these captivating systems is being used to a greater degree in college and university facilities as administrators and faculty seek to engage students in the most inspiring ways possible. Courses in the sciences, medicine, the arts, architecture, and other areas can all benefit from the use of this approach to enhance existing teaching methods and systems.

Making the Decision
The decision to incorporate 3D visualization or immersive technology into a facility requires extensive research and a commitment up front to integrate the use of these systems into classroom work. At the same time, thought must be given to the content that will be included in individual courses and the investment that is required to purchase or develop those resources.

When the University of Notre Dame began planning for a new science building on its Indiana campus, the discussion regarding these technologies received great attention. Dennis C. Jacobs, vice president and associate provost and a chemistry professor at the University, was a member of the planning committee for the Jordan Hall of Science, Notre Dame’s new 202,500-sq.-ft. science building. He says that two themes were key to the facility’s design. “Teaching science today is more focused on a student’s visual experience than it was 10 years ago,” he said. “Great advances have been made in visualization technologies, and we now have the ability to view nature at an unprecedented level. Our first theme was a commitment to using visualization in our new building.”

The second theme involved collaboration. Jacobs and others involved in the project wanted to provide a facility with multiple areas to encourage teamwork. Numerous areas within classrooms and other areas within the building address this requirement.

The Jordan Hall of Science opened in 2006, but planning began in 2002 with construction commencing in 2003. Jacobs and others initially began evaluating available technology early in the project, but did not specify equipment until six months before construction was completed. “Technology can change rapidly,” Jacobs said. “We designed our building, particularly the Digital Visualization Theater (DVT), with enough flexibility to accommodate technology that might be developed during the construction period. Fortunately, we planned wisely.”

According to Jacobs, a challenge that was discussed early and that continues to receive great attention is the content used with the building’s 3D and immersive technologies. He says that three options are currently available: packaged movies, digital sky images for astronomy classes from an outside provider, or content customized for a particular course or instructor. Notre Dame assembled a team to create customized instructional content, which Jacobs counts as a significant benefit as the University seeks to maximize the benefits of the technologies incorporated into the DVT.

Learning in a New Dimension

The jewel of the Jordan Hall of Science is the 136-seat DVT, a theater that engages students by immersing them in a 360-degree visual experience. Through the technologies incorporated into the theater, students are transported inside a cell, see the transcription of DNA to messenger RNA, travel to the far end of the galaxy, or walk through King Tut’s tomb.

The S/L/A/M Collaborative, Glastonbury, CT, designed the science building and spent considerable time focusing on the DVT. “This space resembles a planetarium, but it is so much more,” said Steve Ansel, the firm’s principal on the project. “The team at Notre Dame worked up front to generate excitement for the DVT among faculty in multiple disciplines, and the design and technology accommodates coursework in any area.”

The centerpiece of the DVT is a 50-ft.-wide dome. Rather than using one projector fixed in the center of the space, Notre Dame officials elected to use two projectors located on opposite sides of the room. The two Sony SRX-S110 projectors, which have sophisticated lenses, each project images on one half of the dome to create a seamless graphic. To project content for SkyScan, the system used to provide images for astronomy courses, a minimum of 12 processors feed information into the Sony equipment. Other technology components include a digital-based system with racks for computers and a massive sound system to fill the space with audio. Staff workstations are located outside of the theater to facilitate work while classes are in session.

“3D visualization and immersive technology is hard to put into words,” Ansel said. “Students can navigate the universe in real time or travel through a cell’s interior. The students I have watched in the theater love the technology, and it generates a high level of enthusiasm among users.”

Ansel said that Notre Dame could easily update all technology components because the DVT space itself is simply defined. Equipment, which has already been updated, can be done so effortlessly and behind the scenes to minimize disruptions to classes.