By Anna Lynn Spitzer
1.20.05 -- Green chalkboards and dusty erasers are so yesterday. VizClass, the next-generation lecture room/laboratory developed by UC Irvine Calit2 academic participants Tara Hutchinson and Falko Kuester, has brought the future of digital classrooms to the University of California. Located on the third floor of UCI’s Engineering Gateway, VizClass features multiple touch-sensitive digital whiteboards, a wall-size virtual reality display, and a surround-sound system. It also incorporates many unique data input devices such a data gloves, wireless gyroscopic mice and keyboards, and digital pointers and pens to provide access to a fully digital workspace. The environment is powered by an eight-node computer cluster, interconnected via a dedicated gigabit subnet with OpIPuter (http://www.optiputer.net/) connectivity. Users have access to a broad range of wireless technology that allows students and researchers to interface with VizClass, using their personal laptops or tablet PCs, while the system itself can detect their presence via RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking technology.
VizClass’s three white boards, mounted side-by-side to provide a large working environment, can instantly transform a professor’s sketches into digital text, images or three-dimensional models that students can download, e-mail, print and archive. The interactive classroom encourages student participation by facilitating teamwork and promoting personal contributions to class work.
This ubiquitous computing environment is currently geared towards graduate-level engineering students, but the concept can one day be applied to digital workspaces everywhere, according to Kuester, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS). “The integration of technology into our teaching environment can have a broad range of benefits,” he says. “Real-time student-teacher interaction and collaborative work between student teams using networked devices are just a couple of examples.” In addition, the VizClass offers students the opportunity to incorporate visualization, hands-on manipulation and creative design components into their learning.
VizClass has both two-dimensional and three-dimensional capabilities, employing systems that can be combined easily. The three 72-inch diagonal digital whiteboards comprise the 2D system. The boards can simultaneously function as computer screens and blackboards, and are the main data input units in the room. The 3D system includes a six-foot-by-eight-foot stereo display that is viewed with special 3D glasses. Users can interact with all the displays through wireless mice and keyboards, and additionally, can interact with the (touch-sensitive) digital whiteboards simply by touching them. All display systems are controlled by a dedicated visualization server, which, along with the eight computers, resides in a projection room adjacent to VizClass.
The whiteboards can assist in building analysis, simulating various external factors such as different loading conditions. In a demonstration for visitors, Hutchinson used a single stroke with a digital pen to apply a wind load to a computer model of the Eiffel Tower, and the tower bent several degrees in one direction, reflecting the response of the structure. When she applied the load to the tower’s base instead, a different outcome resulted. “This kind of conceptual learning could not be achieved in a traditional classroom environment,” she says.
Kuester and Hutchinson, who is assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, created the VizClass with funds from a National Science Foundation grant, and additional support from Calit2 and The Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UCI.
While many of the hardware components that comprise VizClass are widely available, its VizION (interface operating network) is what makes the system distinctive. “The VizClass is unique, but the really unique part is the algorithms in the middleware that make it work,” states Kuester. “It seamlessly interfaces with existing drivers and software, and is flexible enough to accommodate a broad range of different devices that can become part of a pervasive computing system.
“VizClass enhances and supports active learning, as well as collaborative research in education,” Kuester sums up. “It is truly an interactive learning space that is as easy to use as a traditional chalkboard environment.”