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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