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Innovations: Bringing the Ho Tung Visualization Lab To The Cutting Edge

By jservedio on December 1, 2017

Joe Eakin

Between June and August of 2017, major renovations were carried out in the Ho Tung Visualization Lab, courtesy of a generous donation from Robert Ho ’56. Construction included updates to the Vis Lab projection capabilities, theater seating, audio, and lighting as well as production spaces and equipment.

Technological Advancements

Most significantly, the old projectors were replaced with two Sony GTZ 280 units, along with Digistar 6 software updates, new video cards, and associated cables and hardware. Installation of the new projectors took place over five days, under the supervision of a technical specialist from Evans and Sutherland. The projectors were relocated to the back and front of the auditorium, allowing installation of six additional seats and increasing the dome’s capacity to 59 people. Carpets and seat upholstery will be replaced next summer.

Further major upgrades to the current audio and lighting systems were performed as well. Bowen Technovation engineers upgraded the speaker system, including installation of a new audio rack, mixer, and sound equipment for the dome. The operating console at the rear of the auditorium now has a touch screen display, a digital mixer, a BluRay player, wireless mic receivers, a power conditioner, integrated lighting, and audio control. Lighting in the dome was improved with a new sequence of 105 LED strips along the newly installed cove line (the junction of the dome and the wall).

Production Spaces

To increase facilities for the growing Vis Lab student production team, two storage closets were converted into working spaces, including installation of new ceilings, insulated walls, air handling systems, carpeting, desks, and 10Gb network capabilities. One of the new spaces will be used as an audio recording and editing suite, having been outfitted with ProTools and 7.1 Surround Sound. The second space is now a digital production area with four new Dell workstations for animation, video editing, 3D modeling, graphic art design, and programming. Two more workstations were purchased, one for the audio suite and one for the office of Joe Eakin, the technical director and designer, Vis Lab and Planetarium. Owing to the exponential increase in need for digital processing power and storage capabilities, a render farm consisting of 16 individual high-end computers that combine to compute high resolution imagery for the dome was installed in September along with a fast storage array capable of storing large amounts of data.

Given the improvements in the production capabilities, it was critical to upgrade the network supporting them to a dedicated system connecting the workstations, render nodes, and storage systems together. Installation is scheduled for early fall. New camera equipment for ongoing and future projects includes frameworks for 360° filming (on land and underwater), two DSLR cameras, six GoPro Hero 4 cameras, and licenses for video and stills editing.

In collaboration with McGill University’s Office of Science and Society and Colgate’s Geology professor Karen Harpp, we are developing a novel science outreach resource whose primary objective is to provide a way for children around the world to learn science by visiting the Galapagos Islands, grounded in virtual reality media. Modules will allow students to explore the Galapagos Islands via images, maps, and 360° video. These explorations will lead them to explanations of previous and ongoing scientific investigations, carried out by researchers in a  variety of fields. Students will have the ability to delve into the scientific concepts to a considerable depth, culminating with content based directly on recent scientific publications and the researchers responsible for that work. The topics will integrate aspects of geology, volcanology, conservation ecology, and evolutionary biology, which are intimately intertwined in Galapagos science, providing students the motivation to learn the fundamental concepts. Most importantly, the project will convey to students that science is not a series of completed tasks, neatly packaged for the public as resolved problems (as is the case in many informal science resources), but that there are still innumerable unsolved scientific questions to investigate. We think this simple message will excite and inspire students to pursue careers in science. A team of four students and two staff initiated the project in June 2017, with the goal of having a pilot version ready within a year.

Also in production are two full dome films, Skylines: Bringing the Sky Down to Earth based on Tony Aveni’s course, Astronomy in Culture, and a full dome show for the Bicentennial in collaboration with professor Robert Garland called Colgate in World History. Colgate in World History highlights images and videos from Colgate’s past into the timeline of world events. Colgate students have spent the last year researching the archives for images and video that line up with key events in world history. We are continuing with this show by combining the visual content with period music. Skylines takes the audience on a journey to the past to show how cities were built in ancient times with an eye to the sky. Viewers strip away their Western view of the sky and bring  the sky down to the Earth. We visit sites from Teotihuacan in Ancient Mexico to Stonehenge to modern day Washington, D.C., to show how these cities were aligned to the heavens. Students are creating the 3D models over the next year and we hope to have a fall 2018 release.

As for courses, Astronomy professor Tom Balonek is teaching a brand-new course in the spring semester based on emeritus professor Tony Aveni’s course Astronomy in Culture. Deciphering the Celestial Sky focuses on studying the motions of the sky from the Greeks to modern day astronomy and is being held Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Vis Lab. Connie Soja from the  Geology department uses the Vis Lab sporadically for an immersive show experience to introduce subject matters in her Darwin and Paleo courses. Kristin De Lucia brings her Core Mexico course students in to view geographic regions of Mexico. With our real-time Earth, we can fly around anywhere on the globe with high resolution terrain to get a bird’s-eye view of geographic features. Geography professors, Adam Burnett, Peter Scull, and Mike Loranty bring in the Geog 131 class to demonstrate Earth-sun geometry, weather & climate data, and geographic regions around the globe. Many other disciplines also continue to use the Vis Lab in many ways. If you are interested   in using the Vis Lab or would like a demo, do not hesitate to contact Joe Eakin. We can create customized content for any discipline and give your students an unique immersive experience.

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