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Brad Thompson/MEDILL

High-resolution, interactive imagery on 18 panels brings a world of learning to a single classroom wall at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory.

Interactive learning: Classroom wall opens to the world

by Brad Thompson
May 18, 2010


Brad Thompson/MEDILL

Andrew Johnson demonstrates the capabilities of the EVL's wall to students.

A massive interactive wall at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory promises to revolutionize today’s classroom and enhance a student’s learning experience through advanced visualization and feedback.

It all started with a physics course.

High-energy nuclear physicist David Hofman, at the University of Illinois Chicago, wanted to offer a specialized physics graduate course with colleague Gerd Kunde streaming in live from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

They needed a classroom with high-powered video conferencing capabilities to involve the whole class and ended up with was one of the most advanced classrooms in the world.

After several attempts to use the video setup within the physics department on campus, Hofman and his students found themselves in a specialized classroom at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory on their campus.

What makes this classroom so unique is the gigantic visualization display and networking technologies.  The display wall, developed by EVL, enhances the interactive learning experience by enabling students to view multiple data streams simultaneously.

“It has huge potential,” Hofman said.  “You can really bring the whole world together.”

The wall is enormous - 23 feet across and made up of 18 separate 46-inch LCD panels - combines into one screen.  And the visualization capabilities and image quality are unmatched.

“It’s really about 10 times the resolution of a good HDTV,” said Andrew Johnson, an associate professor of computer science at EVL.

Transplanting this to a classroom would cost $100,000 now but research continues to look for ways to bring costs down. It’s only one technology EVL is developing to give doctors, scientists and NASA "better eyes."

The EVL is an interdisciplinary graduate research laboratory that combines art and computer science, which specializes in advanced visualization and networking technologies.

A drawback with some current multi-media classrooms is the inability to view different data sources simultaneously within the current field of view. Johnson and his colleagues made the wall so large to enable students to see a PowerPoint presentation, a chart and a graph all at the same time.

“The biggest difference between our tech and other people’s tech is that we really do see the multiple data streams as the defining characteristic of it,” Johnson said.

Not only can students see multiple images but can also interact with the wall by throwing on information from their computers onto the display. 

We want the audience to put stuff on the display, we want multiple people to move and add stuff simultaneously,” Johnson said. 

Hofman said his course would not have even been possible without the high-speed networking connections of the classroom. Kunde, an adjunct professor at UIC and a researcher at Los Alamos, was never actually in the classroom. He taught his parts of the class through a live video stream via the wall.

Hofman himself didn’t need to be present in the magical classroom. He taught numerous sessions while conducting research in Switzerland. While the students were in Chicago, one professor was in New Mexico and the other was in Switzerland, yet both were displayed on the wall at the same time with other viewable materials, such as charts or graphs. 

“From my experience we couldn’t have offered this class with instructors from half way around the world teaching without the wall, no question about it,” Hofman said.

Hofman and Kunde starting teaching this class in the fall semester of 2009 and just finished teaching the course for the second time this month.

“I can see all the students and they can see me and my expressions,” Hofman said. “It brings something alive in a way that - without having that big view up front and all the sound facilities and extra video cameras, you just couldn’t do it.” 

The class focuses on atomic particle collider experiments using large nucleii rather than protons. The plans and discussion involve theoretical concepts with no clear-cut answers so it's important to draw in the virtual presence of experts from around the world.

This is the capability that UIC physics graduate student Jeremy Callner enjoys the most about the EVL classroom. “To be able to have different experts, in different parts of the world actually arguing in front of you, all on one screen is pretty cool,” he said. 

Hofman and Callner both agreed that being able to ask two experts the same question and watch them defend their answers using graphs or other images all in the same field of view is truly unique due to EVL’s classroom. 

At $100,000, these walls are too expensive to put in many classrooms. But, according to Johnson, as LCD televisions keep getting cheaper and have better quality, some version of this wall could be affordable soon.  Also if the software to run this screen becomes more mainstream, prices of it will also decline.

“There will be really available commercial software that’s going to drive something like this,” Johnson said.  “And once it’s that easy, once it’s another version of Microsoft Windows…or something from Apple that’s when it will really take off and be an easy product to use, like a big desktop.” 

Johnson, Hofman and Callner pointed out that this level of technology is not necessary in every classroom. But, for certain areas of study such as the sciences or medical field, EVL’s technology could really enhance the learning process. 

“I could see in 10 years we’d have something closer to this,” Johnson said.  “And maybe something very similar to it in a few places on campus.” 

Until the cost of the panels and software become more affordable, EVL’s interactive classroom will remain unique. In the meantime, Hofman will continue to “make physics come alive” for his students with the help of the EVL.