Sunday, August 18

Playing in sand becomes high-tech

Visualization Portal at UCLA allows researchers to build 3-D models of ancient and modern cities

When I was little, I used to play in the sandbox.

There’s a sandbox at UCLA, but it’s a little different than the ones played in throughout my childhood. The Technology Sandbox and the Visualization Portal are both resources available through UCLA’s Academic Technology Services. The Technology Sandbox is not only a physical place equipped with high-tech computers but also a collaborative space available on campus. The research and development available through these facilities span thousands of years of history, throughout various disciplines.

“Both facilities are here as research places for scholars across campus (that are) looking for support for high-tech digital projects,” said Lisa Snyder, associate director of outreach and operations at the UCLA Experiential Technology Center.

The space and the projects held within its bounds are from all sides of campus, drawing from scientific visualization, high-performance computing, 3-D computer modeling and geographic information systems work. These types of technologies are applied to disciplines such as history, medicine, architecture, biology and urban planning.

The Visualization Portal has a 160-degree spherically wrapped screen, and uses three projectors each with a slight overlay to allow for 3-D visualizations, complete with glasses that allow for spatial representations far beyond the red and blue movie-theater-style lenses. This allows for visualizations of 3-D models of anything from cities to molecules.

At the lab, many of the 3-D models generated explore relationships between space and time, looking at historical architectural developments as they occurred, spatially and sequentially. This 3-D and historical data can then be exported to Google Maps, said Yoh Kawano, campus Geographic Information Systems coordinator.

“(These exports are done by) using Google Maps as a tool, and then using your own data that’s not in Google, but in your own environment and mashing them up together,” Kawano said.

These types of projects move the historical data that has been visualized into availability for the public.

The Sandbox contains many projects involving historical detail.

Laura Redford, a graduate student in history, has been overlaying maps of Los Angeles with current ones for the GE cluster on Los Angeles. The class is taking these maps and creating tours throughout the city in an online environment.

Brian Zentmyer, student research assistant at Academic Technology Services, has been painting 3-D models of Carnac, the ancient Roman city model from 4500 B.C. with textures from pictures taken at the current site.

Itay Zaharovits, the project’s modeler and designer and a research fellow at the Experiential Technologies Center, spends most of his time working on the Meth-Apartment project in the Technology Sandbox. The project is through the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA.

He said he uses practices similar to those used in “painting” Carnac, using real images and computer graphics rendering to create an authentic visual experience for real-life meth addicts, in Second Life, the online interactive 3-D environment.

The project features a “control apartment” with open windows and clean counters that does not provide subjects any ways of using any substances. The subjects are first presented with the control apartment as heart readings are taken.

After experiencing the empty environment, subjects enter the simulated “Meth-Apartment,” which has closed windows, is generally dirty and dark, and is scattered with simulated drug paraphernalia.

This type of study has been done before, through videos of drug use. The results for this new first-person 3-D visualization are promising as a tool to help explore, understand and curb cravings for the drugs, Zaharovits said.

“(In Second Life, you) move your body into this virtual body, and you feel like, to a certain degree, that you’re actually there,” Zaharovits said.

The Technology Sandbox has facilitated many projects involving collaboration across disciplines and knowledge gained through these interactions.

A lot of the projects I encountered were about 3-D space. To get involved in the sandbox as an undergraduate, your project must have a faculty sponsor.

Within and outside of the walls of the Sandbox, we can see this is what’s possible with technology, 3-D capabilities and a lot of ideas ranging from 4500 B.C. to current-day neuroscience.

Space is being conceptualized in ways not technically possible before facilities like the Technology Sandbox, allowing participants to emerge themselves in environments. At the Technology Sandbox, projects are created that are situated within the Sandbox, but many have entered more public realms, accessible, though maybe only to a specific audience through venues such as Second Life or Google Earth.

The Technology Sandbox is a place where researchers meet with varying degrees of technological expertise and though the projects are highly specialized, separate and individualized, they come together and can learn from each other.

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