Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bouncing Off The Walls

Guest post from Cara Bonnett, Office of Information Technology

No, it’s not your imagination: Those clouds really are following you, and the sunflowers are waving.

Students walking past the huge media wall at the Link in Perkins Library may not realize that the tiled display is responding to their movements. But thanks to Duke researchers and computer science students, they now can interact with the wall to play with the weather, generate their own poetry and navigate through a collection of ultra-high-resolution “gigapixel” images.

“The challenge is getting people to notice that the display is interactive,” said Robert Duvall, a computer science professor whose students designed the weather simulation. “How do you draw people in, help them understand what’s going on and get them playing with it?”

The media wall – built by Duke’s Visualization Technology Group as part of the Visual Studies Initiative – includes 48 computer screens, six Web cameras and a set of directional speakers, all driven by a 104-core computing cluster. The cameras, positioned on the ceiling, are programmed to detect viewers’ positions or movements and use that data to determine what’s represented on the screen.

Students in Duvall’s advanced graphics class designed the weather simulation to be useful as well as fun. The display, based on real-time data from an online weather site, features cartoonish rainclouds or clear blue skies (depending on the forecast), with sunflowers that “wave” when a viewer steps up to the screen.

“After you’ve been in the Link for a couple hours, you might not know what the weather’s like outside,” Duvall said. “On the wall you can see it at a glance.”

Another display – “Passage Sets,” created by visual studies professor Bill Seaman and programmed by research associate Todd Berreth – includes an interactive poem generator that allows as many as four viewers at a time to choose words or phrases from four lists that then flow in a line of text across the bottom of the screen. An opening for the exhibit will be held Friday, April 16.

Berreth and a committee of faculty, staff and students are seeking new ideas for exhibits on the wall. Students in future classes could help with the programming, and developers can test their programs on a smaller-scale version of the wall at Smith Warehouse.

The only caveat: No marketing allowed.

Faculty and students are invited to submit project ideas to Berreth’s group at Find out more information about developing projects for the Link media wall on the group’s wiki.

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