Seeing Solutions: A High-Tech Display Transforms Research and Teaching
On the fourth floor of the Petit Science Center, students in a geography class stand before a glowing concave bank of computer screens. They use wireless keyboards and mice to zoom in and out of the 3D renderings, which depict downtown Atlanta side by side with old planning maps of the city from the 1950s.
The nine-foot-tall, room-filling array of computer screens is Georgia State’s visualization wall, the university’s cutting-edge tool to examine and solve complex problems in fields including geography, public health, chemistry and even the arts.
The wall displays 200 million pixels (a 55-inch flat-screen TV might have about two million pixels). The system is tied into four different computer servers, allowing the wall to display four large images at the same time.
At Array A, Maya Velasco, a post-baccalaureate student, zooms in on the Colorado River winding through the Grand Canyon.
“It’s pretty exciting to see something bigger, like a natural landform here on this screen, rather than on a normal computer screen or in a book,” Velasco says. “It makes the impact greater, and it’s definitely realistic.”
Professors also plan to use the wall to track public health in Atlanta, explore molecular modeling and visualize computer interfaces.
The wall is for more than science, however. It has also been used for the humanities, including taking a bigger look at library collections.
The University Library recently received a $210,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitally enhance and increase access to a rare collection of Atlanta city planning documents.
The project, “Planning Atlanta: A New City in the Making, 1930s – 1990s,” could allow researchers to see and better understand the patterns of growth, urban decay and renewal in the city.
Margareta Larsson, a lecturer in Georgia State’s Intensive English Program, has used the wall to take students on a “virtual field trip.”
“The coolness factor was huge, since it is a really neat room and fancy technology,” Larsson says. “In fact, after the visit, one student used the visualization wall as an example of a reason to come to Georgia State to study.”
Former Georgia State geography professor Jeremy Crampton says one of the wall’s greatest strengths is the ability to foster collaboration.
“The greatest advantages are that the wall is both immersive and interactive,” he says. “Activity is always better than passivity.”
Art Vandenberg of Georgia State’s Department of Information Systems and Technology, who helped to spearhead efforts to get the wall up and running, says the potential for assisting the community is limitless.
Officials from the Atlanta Regional Commission have visited to get a feel for the wall’s power, as have leaders from various foundations.
“You can involve citizens in decisions with neighborhood planning, visualize them spatially and over lay demographics,” Vandenberg says. “You can say, ‘Here’s your neighborhood, and here’s what’s good and bad.’ The potential for collaboration is great.”