Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      September 1999 Volume XXII Number 2

Teaming Up in

Boundaries of all kinds are dissolving with the rise of supercomputing, and Donna Cox, distinguished visiting technologist at Indiana University Bloomington, has played a major part in accelerating the process. Her notion of Renaissance Teams has blurred the lines between disciplines, particularly the arts and the sciences, and geographical distance is being eliminated in her work with Remote Virtual Collaboration.

Using National Center for Supercomputing Applications' (NCSA) Virtual Director/Cave5D, individuals meet as avatars in virtual Chesapeake Bay data-space at the Supercomputing 98 conference during a five-way remote collaboration demonstration involving Illinois, Virginia, and Florida. Clockwise from top: Stuart Levy (NCSA), John Shalf (NCSA), Glen Wheless (Old Dominion University), Donna Cox (NCSA), Cathy Lascara (Old Dominion), Robert Patterson (NCSA), Russ Burgett (Old Dominion), Satheesh Subramanian (University of Illinois), Umesh Thakkar (NCSA). See --credit

In May 1998, Cox held introductory seminars in the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts at IUB and the Herron School of Art at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and began to discuss projects with faculty members and students in fields ranging from archaeology and astronomy to chemistry, medicine, and cultural anthropology. She is currently helping to develop a virtual reality arts program for the School of Fine Arts and is contributing to the introduction of solid modeling and rendering classes in the IUPUI New Media Program. The lines between art and science, Cox argues, have always been open. She points out how easily we forget that "two musicians invented Kodachrome, a portrait painter created Morse code, and a French artist invented photography."

Cox, who was trained as an artist and has held many solo exhibitions, is professor of art and design and chair for external initiatives, Media Narrative Center, at the School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In wondering how she could use the new media technologies in scientific research, she hit on the idea of the Renaissance Team. "The mapping of information is visual communication and involves artistic knowledge as well as scientific," Cox argues. The Renaissance era saw new advances in "information mapping," with developments in botany and anatomy- advances made possible through the combined skills of artists and scientists.

The Renaissance Team, accordingly, is a group consisting of experts in a variety of disciplines who contribute their knowledge toward the solution of a specific research problem. The artist's role is, in effect, to provide the interface, by "visualizing" supercomputer output with the imaginative use of advanced computer graphics. Cox's own work with research scientists in fields such as entomology and astronomy has yielded results that inhabit the borders between art and science.

Cox's unusual positioning as an artist with grounding in technology has put her in the vanguard of new developments in information technology. Her work with "remote virtual collaboration"--the sharing of a virtual workspace by two or more people separated by great distances--has commanded much attention. Cox's appointment as a distinguished visiting technologist has enabled IU to join with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois to test and refine a new tool for remote collaboration: The NCSA Virtual Director.

Virtual Director was co-created by Cox, Robert Patterson (NCSA and an adjunct assistant professor in the New Media Program at IUPUI), and Marcus Thiebaux, of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Virtual Director is a tool for establishing scenes and camera moves through complex 3-D spaces for subsequent rendering in a variety of formats that can be transferred to film, high-definition TV (HDTV), video, or web browsers. The program is based in a rear-screen projection, virtual room known as a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment). Several CAVEs can be linked over high speed networks in a geographically distributed workspace in which groups can meet to exchange and try out ideas. Around twenty CAVEs currently exist in the United States; Indiana University has had one on the Bloomington campus since 1997.

The Virtual Director team extensively used this virtual tool in work on the IMAX film Cosmic Voyage. Cox, Patterson, and Stuart Levy of NCSA will use a refined version of Virtual Director in the making of a PBS/Nova HDTV production, "Mapping the Universe," a documentary on the large-scale structure of the universe. IU's supercomputing network will be used to compute and store massive amounts of data involved in this work, which brings together scientists and technicians in Hawaii, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana, all in a virtual work environment. On the production side, groups in New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston will also contribute via Internet remote collaboration, and the result will be a highly innovative HDTV production.

The culmination of Cox's ideas happens when a Renaissance Team is brought together through remote virtual collaboration. Scientists and directors will work together to create scenes using Virtual Director software in a CAVE; high-performance computers will render the scenes and store the video on a mass storage system; and video technicians will edit together the final video, all through a distributed file system shared over national high-speed networks. The Virtual Director Team (Cox, Patterson, Levy) will work in closely with Rick McMullen, a principal scientist, University Information Technology Services Advanced Information Technology Laboratory, at Indiana University Bloomington, to coordinate this NCSA/IU collaborative effort

"Artists inherently possess talents and interests that will become ever more important," Cox says, "as the future requires understanding and 'seeing' through technological tools." Donna Cox is finding new ways for us to see the world--and in this sense, is among the leaders of a new Renaissance.--Nick Riddle

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