July 14, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 1

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    Multimedia center adds new dimension to research

    Amanda Woodward had a problem she didn't know how to solve: how to erase human feet from a videotape. Maria Lombardo and Marie Orton wanted to program a computer to teach Italian gestures. And Andrea Malagoli needed to put his computer animations on videotape.

    These are only three of the nearly 150 projects that have passed through the Multimedia & Visualization Center in its 20 months of operation. Under the umbrella of Academic Information Technologies (AIT), the center, located in Culver Hall since March, is run by Chad Kainz, Computer Graphics & Multimedia Specialist for AIT's Technical Support & Advanced Applications department. Kainz cheerfully tackles the wide variety of projects that come his way.

    "What makes this job exciting is that I never know what's going to come in the door next," Kainz said, citing as an example Woodward's project of erasing the feet inadvertently captured on a research videotape. "Amanda came in and said, 'I know they do this in the movies -- can we do it?' And I said 'Sure!' "

    In her studies on infant cognition, Woodward, Assistant Professor in Psychology, is researching what babies understand about how people move -- that a person can move away from another person without being propelled by an outside force, for instance. To conduct research on this topic with infants, she videotaped giant blocks moving across a stage (propelled from behind by unseen actors), and then videotaped the actors performing the same movements without the blocks. The videotapes will be shown to babies, who, Woodward said, pay more attention to the events that they find odd or surprising. Woodward's theory is that if babies understand how people and objects differ, they ought to be surprised to see a block move away from another block without being propelled by an outside force, but they ought to find equivalent actions by humans to be normal.

    But after videotaping, a problem cropped up -- the actors' feet were visible beneath the giant blocks as they scuttled across the stage. Woodward worried that infants might pay more attention to the feet than to the blocks themselves. Reshooting the video wasn't an option, but Woodward thought it just might be possible to get rid of the feet anyway, and she turned to Kainz for help.

    Kainz warned her that it would take a long time, but Woodward decided it was worth it, and together they transferred the videotape, frame by frame, to a computer editing system. Through a process called "rotoscoping," they painted over the human figures in each frame, and the sequence was then transferred back to videotape. After seven months of work, Woodward said, the new tape is almost finished.

    "Chad has been great -- he really has been a godsend," she said. "There's no way I could have done it on my own."

    For future experiments, Woodward plans to use a combination of computer animation and videotape to create her simulations. "Chad has really provided me with a chance to learn about what's possible."

    According to Kainz, he's just doing his job. "I see myself as a facilitator," he said. "Many people on campus are doing these types of projects, and if they need help or don't know who to talk to, that's where I come in."

    The Multimedia & Visualization Center was created in 1992 by Dorothy Raden, Associate Director for AIT's Technical Support & Advanced Applications department, to assist researchers who need to be able to visualize their data and faculty members who wish to develop multimedia instructional materials. The center provides its resources at no charge to University faculty members and also, on a case-by-case basis, to students and staff. Projects are reviewed before they are accepted.

    "The center provides the resources for people to start projects," said Joe Mambretti, Acting Director of AIT. "It allows them to learn about technologies they may not have the resources for initially."

    One group that regularly takes advantage of the Multimedia & Visualization Center consists of faculty members in the Language Faculty Resource Center, a workshop for preparing and presenting teaching materials.

    Lombardo and Orton, both Lecturers in Continuing Studies, are using multimedia to teach Italian gestures. By digitizing Italian film clips and putting them on the computer, Lombardo and Orton are creating a self-directed program that students can browse through to play back clips and receive information about different types of gestures.

    Using the computer allows the instructors to incorporate text with the clips, and the computer also makes it easy for students to watch gestures in slow motion, Lombardo said. "The frustrating thing about using movies to teach gestures is that everything goes by so fast. With the computer, the student really has a lot of control," she said.

    Lombardo said when she and Orton started the project, they didn't know much about computers, but Kainz convinced them they could easily learn how to create their own programs. To her surprise, Lombardo found that he was right. The teaching module is nearing completion and will be used in the Language Lab.

    The Italian gesture module was based on earlier work on Arabic gestures by Carolyn Killean, Associate Professor in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and Linguistics. Other multimedia projects currently under way in the LFRC include using French film clips to teach language tenses.

    Malagoli, Senior Research Associate in Astronomy & Astrophysics, uses the Multimedia & Visualization Center to create computer-animated models of the sun's interior. Kainz enthusiastically demonstrated Malagoli's latest simulations. "Look at this one, it's beautiful!" he said, as the swirling blue-and-white whorls wound into increasingly complex patterns.

    Malagoli, who works with Fausto Cattaneo, Senior Research Associate in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and Robert Rosner, Professor and Chairman of Astronomy & Astrophysics, uses visualization to get a better idea of what the chaotic motion he describes in mathematical equations actually looks like. "It gives me an idea of what to look for," he said. "I can also use it in presentations, and it's of great value in explaining the physics to other people because it makes it immediately intuitive." Malagoli and Cattaneo use equations from hydrodynamics -- the study of the motions of fluids -- to compute the flow of heat from the interior to the exterior of the sun. "There are millions and millions of pieces of information that have to be computed, so I need a computer that is large enough and fast enough to give me a solution within my lifetime," he said. He's now using Argonne National Laboratory's SP-1, the first of the next generation of massively parallel supercomputers developed at IBM. The visualizations have provided new insight into the way heat is transported in the sun, Malagoli said. "The most important things we've learned are that although this fluid is very chaotic, it does contain coherent structures, and each of them contributes in a different way to the global transport and mixing of heat. Just by looking at the equations, there was no way you could tell these structures were going to appear."

    After creating the animations, Malagoli taps into Kainz's expertise to help transfer them to videotape. Computer animations often don't look the same on videotape, because computer monitors and television sets have different responses to color. Kainz works with researchers to develop for their animations a palette of colors that will look best when viewed on a TV monitor.

    Other projects that Kainz has worked on in the past year and a half include producing a time-lapse movie of the solar eclipse that was created by Astronomy & Astrophysics undergraduate Liz Schmidt and broadcast on local television stations and working with faculty members in Computer Science to create the stand-alone predecessor to the now Internet-accessible multimedia description of that department and the research under way there. Current projects include visualizing the distribution of dinosaur bones in a riverbed in support of research by Paul Sereno, Associate Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy.

    In the future, the Multimedia & Visualization Center will also serve as a central broadcast facility for sending and receiving digital broadcasts across the Internet -- teleconferencing to remote collaborators, for example.

    The role of multimedia in research is continually expanding, and it's part of Kainz's job as facilitator to introduce people to the medium and encourage them to explore it on their own, he said. "I tell people, 'Don't limit yourself to what you see out there today -- you've got an entirely new medium out there to explore. Be creative. Make it your own.' "

    -- Diana Steele