The Renaissance Computing Institute’s social computing rooms aid researchers and professors

Photo of a researcher in a 360 projection room, looking over London.Original photo by Eric Knisley
David Borland, a senior visualization researcher at RENCI, explains the technology contributing to a 360-degree view of London.
November 19th, 2015

In the typical classroom, century-old manuscripts span across several pages of a textbook and comparisons of cancer cells live on static slides. These antiquated tools leave professors whose instruction involves big data in a bind — literally.

But on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, professors can piece together entire manuscripts or layer cancer cell biopsies for their students through the use of social computing rooms (SCRs). With twelve projectors illuminating four, symmetric walls, SCRs create a 360-degree display.

“Walking into a room where every single wall, the entire surface area, is used for learning — that is dynamic,” Paul Mihas, the director of education and qualitative research at the Howard W. Odum Institute, says. However, these rooms were not originally designed for educational purposes.

Hit a wall

“I would have never told you back in 2007 that an English class could benefit from using that room,” Karen Green, the director of communication and outreach at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), says. “We developed it for medical researchers.”

In 2007, RENCI established an engagement center in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Information and Technical Services building on Manning Drive. With this on-campus location, the office developed a goal to provide researchers easier access to technological resources.

Not too long after its move, RENCI’s neighbors at UNC’s School of Medicine knocked on their door. “They needed a technical solution that would make it easier to work together around data,” Green says.

Many universities, including UNC, and corporate offices at the time were investigating virtual reality and 3-D solutions to present big data. But the team at RENCI wanted a more cost-effective and user-friendly technology.

So they played around with commonly used technology, searching for a solution. By tricking out a computer, microphones and speakers, and a few projectors it created the SCR. “We needed a technology that you didn’t have to be a programmer to know how to operate,” Green says. “With the SCR, there is less cost and no learning curve.”

By implementing multiple video splitters, RENCI runs 12 projectors through just one computer. Anyone who can run a Windows system can adapt their materials to the room. “It’s the equivalent of using dual monitors,” David Borland, a senior visualization researcher at RENCI, says. “Most people do that in their office at work or at home.”

RENCI had more tricks up its sleeve to increase the rooms’ accessibility. The team selected short throw projectors that are mounted closer to the screen and still fill a large amount of surface area. This means that people standing or walking around the SCR do not cast a shadow on the walls. “You can get up to a foot away from it and nothing changes — no distortion, no distraction, nothing,” Borland says.

When this technology was introduced to researchers in the School of Medicine, they decided to display and magnify a collection of medical scans. The researchers walked around the room and discussed specific cells grouped on different walls. Through comparing and contrasting the scans, they created algorithms that are now used to identify tissue containing melanoma.

The ability to work in groups around big data is just one of the time-saving elements of the SCR. “It takes a little bit of the busy work out of science and allows researchers to get to the discovery part faster,” Green says.

From social science to pre-med

The SCR’s ease of use has also helped professors at UNC. Since its introduction in 2007, the room in the Information and Technology Services building has been used for everything from poster presentations to art galleries.

Because of its popularity, a second SCR was installed in Davis Library’s Odum Institute last year. “This partnership between the Odum Institute and RENCI is a great way of bringing technology onto campus,” Mihas says.

He believes that the second room’s location on central campus sparked greater interest in faculty and students. Geography professor Ashley Ward has used the room for her medical geography class over the past two years. Instead of taking a handwritten, hours-long exam, Ward’s students execute semester-long research projects that culminate in a poster gallery in the SCR.

“Using the SCR closely mimics something you might see at a professional conference,” Ward told RENCI. “There’s a lot of excitement, and it’s a really fun final exam.”

That excitement has turned into tangible results for Ward’s students. Over the past three years, two of them have used their posters as application material for medical school.

Green says she would have never guessed technology developed for cancer researchers and other collaborative teams could be helpful to students majoring in anything from social science to pre-med. But she is happy with the implementation of the SCRs. “The use of the room,” Green says, “is only limited by the imagination and creativity of the faculty members who are finding new ways to use it.”

RENCI technological staff created plans and installed each of the social computing rooms. The organization itself also assisted with the cost of the technology.

A third social computing room was installed in North Carolina State University’s D. H. Hill Library in 2014; the room is called the Visualization Studio.

Ashley Ward is a lecturer in the Department of Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, with a focus on medical geography; poverty, health, and policy in the American South; and community development.