Sunday, August 18

Visualization Portal encourages student comprehension

UCLA students are taking field trips to the cathedrals in Spain
and into the microscopic world of molecules ““ all while
sitting comfortably in their seats here on campus.

The students are getting a first look at UCLA’s
Visualization Portal, a virtual reality theater which uses a
floor-to-ceiling spherical screen to overcome time and space.

The portal, hidden in the Math Science building, allows
participants to experience the world as it appeared 800 years ago,
or even magnified one million times inside the human body,
depending on the model being run.

At one end of the portal is the Visualization Lab, a computer
center boasting post-production video equipment and high-end
workstations from Apple, SGI and IBM. These resources are available
upon reservation and consultation with Academic Technology

At the other end of the portal room is the Trimension
Systems’ virtual reality display, a screen measuring 24 feet
in diameter and eight feet high.

Three separate images may be displayed on the screen at once, or
the operator can combine them into one continuous high-resolution
image that pans around the audience.

An SGI computer sits in the control room, powering all this 3-D
imagery. Four processors lie at the heart of this machine, which is
also equipped with a vast array of professional graphics software

“This kind of visualization helps researchers and students
alike really see the data,” said Pieter Lechner, manager of
the Visualization Portal. “You’ll get it a lot quicker
looking at a model than reading about it in a textbook.”

Professors seem to agree. The simulation serves as a high point
in Professor John Dagenais’ introductory course in medieval
Spanish and as an ongoing research project for his summer-session
students studying and traveling the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago
de Compostela, a historic cathedral in Northwestern Spain.

“You can talk and talk about how thick the walls of
Romanesque cathedrals were, but that doesn’t do anything
unless you go through and get a feel of what that meant,”
Dagenais said. “With (the portal), you can actually go inside
the wall and see for yourself how thick they are.”

The portal is a bridge connecting the world of research and
education. It is a device that can display data in such a way that
you can actually see the “bigger picture,” according to

For example, long lists of numbers from brain scans are
sometimes transformed into a picture of a brain, but using the
portal they can be color-coded and made more easily understandable
and aesthetically pleasing.

“We’re always looking for ways (other) than having
just a big stack of numbers to show the data,” he added.

ATS also assists researchers and professors in creating more
traditional video presentations.

The screens at the portal have been used in this way for ten
years to display 2-D graphics and animations.

The Visualization Portal, however, is undergoing changes that
will emphasize its use as a 3-D modeling tool rather than simply a
media center.

The primary focus of the portal will shift, beginning to take
full advantage of this unique, high-end technology to display UCLA
research in a new and illuminating medium.

Students who have used the portal as part of their courses agree
that the 3-D modeling technology is superior to more traditional
lecture demonstrations as well. Several students even applauded
Dagenais for taking advantage of a new technology he thought would
improve their understanding.

“It’s an interactive experience; it feels like you
are there,” said Abby Lievense, a fourth-year linguistics
student who took Dagenais’ Spanish course. Lievense was
shocked that such a lecture was even possible.

“It’s a different perspective, an interesting way to
make the lecture better; you can really get a feel (for the
location) more than you can with just a picture,” said Karin
Drinkhall, a third-year Spanish student.

According to Dagenais, photographs from some of his students who
visited Santiago de Compostela were actually used in the planning
stages for the cathedral’s 3-D model, making the experience a
truly interactive event.

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