UK’s cutting-edge VisCenter gets sharp, new home

April 4, 2011

Imaging software to unlock secrets from ancient texts. Virtual combat training environments for soldiers. Rear-projection stage sets for operas.

Since its creation seven years ago, the University of Kentucky’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments has been developing all kinds of cutting-edge audio and visual technology. Now, it has a cutting-edge building in which to do that work.

The VisCenter recently moved into the new $18.6 million Davis Marksbury Building near Rose and Maxwell streets. It is UK’s first new building to be certified under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards.

The 45,000-square-foot building includes the latest in research facilities, as well an environmentally friendly design and systems that will do everything from manage rainfall runoff to reduce power consumption. Solar panels on the roof will provide about 10 percent of its electricity.

In addition to the VisCenter, the building houses two other departments of the College of Engineering: computer science, and electrical and computer engineering. It is next door to the James F. Hardymon Building, which houses advanced networking research, creating a “digital village” that will make collaboration easier among faculty and students.

“I’m now running into people every day that I wanted to interact with for years, but I never saw them,” said Brent Seales, director of the VisCenter, which previously was downtown in two rented floors of the Kentucky Utilities building.

Collaboration is at the heart of the VisCenter mission. It works throughout the university to help other departments create and commercialize new audio-visual technology that can help train students, improve Kentucky’s economy and generate money for the university.

It has more than a dozen active faculty and about that many staff members. At any given time, it works with about 50 students, from doctoral candidates to a couple of local high schoolers. Its research has ranged far and wide.

Perhaps the most visible project was its collaboration with UK Opera Theatre this winter to create vivid, rear-projection stage set technology for a production of Porgy and Bess. The sets then were rented by The Atlanta Opera for its sold-out production.

Further commercializing that technology could become a financial winner for the university. But Seales also would like to see it used in Kentucky schools to improve student productions.

The center has developed technology to create high-resolution copies of ancient manuscripts, and Seales is hoping to improve on that enough to read Roman papyrus scrolls damaged when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. and buried the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

That work has led to discussions with Israeli authorities about a project to create high-tech scans of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a system that would allow scholars to compare previous images of them to see how the scrolls have changed over time.

The VisCenter created virtual training environments for the Army, so, for example, soldiers could practice walking down a dark village street in Afghanistan before they faced the real thing.

The center also has an FBI contract to develop microphone beam technology, which would allow sound to be isolated and amplified without a microphone actually having to be close to a subject.

While obviously helpful for surveillance, such technology could have significant commercial applications. For example, it could be used for actors onstage or question-and-answer sessions in an auditorium.

The VisCenter is working on three-dimensional fingerprinting technology for the Department of Homeland Security. It would provide much more accurate biometric information than the old mashed-inky-fingers-on-paper method.

The center’s staff also has produced several highly regarded documentary films, including Coal in Kentucky and Imaging the Iliad.

One major project seeks to create audio-visual technology that would make it easier for surgeons to see body parts they are operating on, as well as to consult long-distances with other physicians. Another project is trying to minimize distractions surgeons face in the operating room. Still another hopes to create visual images of the human vocal system for more accurate diagnosis of voice problems.

“We’ve built a certain niche,” Seales said, which helps the center attract projects from both the academic and business worlds, plus outstanding faculty members and students. “A big part of our mission is to engage the community and, hopefully, inspire innovation.”

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UK collaboration creates high-tech ‘Porgy & Bess’

January 22, 2011

When the curtain goes up on University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s Porgy and Bess later this week, audiences might be seeing more than a grand production of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic American opera.

They might be seeing the future of theatrical stage design.

Behind the 70-piece orchestra and 75 cast members on the Singletary Center stage will be giant backdrops showing historic Charleston and coastal South Carolina. But these won’t be typical paint-on-canvas sets. Lights will twinkle. Leaves will flutter. Water will ripple.

These backdrops will be created with digitally enhanced photographs and video of the actual places. They will be projected from behind onto two giant screens by a high-tech system developed by UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, also known as the VisCenter.

“The kind of special effects you have seen in films can now be used in a live theater context, which hasn’t happened before,” said Brent Seales, a UK computer science professor and director of the VisCenter.

Theater companies have been experiment ing with projected “virtual” sets for years. I saw a famous attempt on Broadway five years ago in the short-lived Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Woman in White. The images were ghostly and distracting.

“If you were in the balcony, it didn’t work at all,” said Richard Kagey, an Atlanta-based director and theatrical designer who also saw it. Kagey has worked with UK Opera and the VisCenter to create the Porgy and Bess sets, and he said the effect is completely different.

“I think people are going to be stunned when they see how vivid and clear it is, even when you put stage lighting in front of it,” said Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre.

To create this set, two 24-foot-tall screens were made from a new material that allows images projected from behind to be viewed clearly from many angles. One screen is 15 feet wide, with 18 projectors, and the other is 32 feet wide, backed by 36 projectors. The screen assemblies are on casters and can be moved around the stage easily.

Each projector throws a piece of a high-resolution picture or video onto the screen from a distance of only 5 feet. The heart of the system is “calibration” software the VisCenter developed that blend all of the pieces into a seamless image.

As with movie special effects, the key is to make the scenery believable — not distracting — so the audience is swept up by the music, acting and story. “Nobody wants to be upstaged by a display screen,” Seales said.

The stage will still have physical sets, such as Porgy’s shack and the balcony on Catfish Row. “But we won’t have those huge pieces that we’ve had to build before to make it believable,” McCorvey said.

Three-year collaboration

McCorvey and Seales both came to UK in 1991. Since then, McCorvey has built one of the nation’s top training programs for opera singers. Seales has led the VisCenter in working throughout the university to develop and commercialize audio-visual technology.

But Seales and McCorvey didn’t meet until three years ago, when they both were making presentations to Women & Philanthropy, an organization started by Patsy Todd, wife of UK President Lee T. Todd Jr.

“As I listened to Brent I was just so intrigued with all they were doing,” said McCorvey, who soon arranged to tour the VisCenter. “As I looked at it I saw all the possible applications for theater.”

McCorvey quickly contacted Kagey, who has been working with the VisCenter staff ever since to develop the technology. Once it was ready, McCorvey knew how he wanted to use it first: Porgy and Bess.

“It’s a work near and dear to my heart,” McCorvey said. That is partly because McCorvey met his wife, singer Alicia Helm, when they both were in the chorus of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Porgy and Bess in 1985.

McCorvey said facilities have always limited his ability to produce operas with large casts and elaborate sets. The Singletary Center has a big stage and orchestra pit but little space around the stage to accommodate traditional sets. The Lexington Opera House’s stage can handle sets but not a large cast or orchestra.

McCorvey’s problem is common, which is why a half-dozen opera companies from around the country are sending representatives to see UK’s Porgy and Bess.

After UK’s last performance Feb. 6, the sets will be rented to The Atlanta Opera for its production of Porgy and Bess a month later. And that could be just the beginning, because this technology could provide cost-saving backdrops for almost any show.

UK expects to more than recoup its $350,000 in development costs by renting this set, licensing the technology and perhaps even creating a spinoff company to produce projection content for other shows.

“Getting this kind of technology into the marketplace is a lot of what this VisCenter is all about,” Seales said.

While McCorvey is focused on future artistic possibilities of the technology, he understands why people such as Seales and Leonard Heller, UK’s vice president for commercialization and economic development, are equally excited about it.

“I will never forget walking into the warehouse where they put it together and seeing it work for the first time,” McCorvey said. “Len Heller looked at it and said to me, ‘This is going to be really big.'”

  • If You Go

    ‘Porgy and Bess’

    What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera

    When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 29, Feb. 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. Feb. 6

    Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

    Tickets: $45 general public, $40 seniors, faculty and staff, $15 students; $10 ages 12 and younger; available at the Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at

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