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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

September 10, 2004

Live, from ISU and elsewhere

by Debra Gibson

Step into Howe Hall's Room 144, and you feel as if you've entered the ultimate in home theaters. One 18-foot-wide screen looms above comfy armchairs. Small portable cameras are scattered underneath the screen, which is the focus of a bank of projectors. Computers are aligned along the outside walls. Eight to 10 ISU graduate students stroll in, plopping down in the inviting seats.

With a few clicks of a computer mouse, live scenes pop up on the massive screen, including a view of this room. Soon, a classroom of Purdue University students fills the middle portion. A class syllabus for this introductory course on virtual reality occupies the remaining overhead space.

Access Grid, a collaborative effort between the College of Engineering and Academic Information Technologies, allows students at Iowa State to take classes with their peers at other institutions. Video streams, cameras and microphones can be live at all sites, all the time and participants have a choice of channels where they can join on-going discussions. Photo by Bob Elbert.


Course professor Carolina Cruz-Neira leads the day's classroom discussion, periodically deferring to the Purdue instructor (Laura Arns, Cruz-Neira's former graduate student) clearly visible in the middle of the screen. An ISU student asks a question; a peer from Purdue answers.

This introductory virtual reality class has gone "live," thanks to technology known as the Access Grid (AG). Through its use, a university course is being taught collaboratively, in real time, to classes located at two different universities in two different states, and captured digitally for on-demand access anywhere. This innovative approach to inter-institutional teaching provides students and instructors an experience as if they all were in the same room. The instructors can confer; students can talk and exchange ideas.

High-quality audio and video functions are supported through through the high-speed Internet2. ISU's AG "node" is one of about 200 currently in use around the world, according to Cruz-Neira, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering and Stanley Chair of Interdisciplinary Engineering.

The equipment needed to produce these interactions includes "PCs with high-speed Internet cards and a good video card," Cruz-Neira explained. "It's all off-the-shelf equipment and not terribly expensive. For viewing purposes, you need the projection screens, the video cameras, projectors (like those used for PowerPoint) that beam up the live streaming videos. It's really been a minimal investment."

Similar technologies are used on campus to conduct learning sessions. For instance, the Brenton Center utilizes Polycom hardware and Internet Protocol (IP) video conferencing to teach courses on topics such as sustainable agriculture to students as far away as Norway. This technology, though, is "live" only during the actual class sessions. The AG technology works as an open communication, available at all times to any AG users around the globe.

"Think of it as being like cable television," explained Cruz-Neira, associate director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC). "There are many different channels, and you go to the one that has the most interest to you. Once everyone is connected to the same 'channel,' all enter the pool of live connections, so we can see and hear everybody who is participating.

"It's like an open meeting," she continued. "Everyone can talk at the same time, and there are not buttons or controls running things. The video streams, cameras and microphones involved are live at all the sites all the time."

About $35,000 was budgeted for the project, but costs came in "significantly under that amount, thanks to creative solutions from the project team," said Paul Jewell, program coordinator for Engineering Distance Education (EDE). Monies were provided by the College of Engineering and Academic Information Technologies (AIT), with technical support from AIT, VRAC and EDE.

Cruz-Neira credits Jewell and Glen Galvin, VRAC systems support administrator, for assimilating the technology into her classroom. EDE also records and archives the live lectures to provide access for one of Cruz-Neira's students, an out-of-town John Deere engineer who can't attend the class. As a bonus, the archived streaming lectures are available at all times through EDE's servers for all students enrolled in the course.

This AG node is actually the second on campus. The first belongs to the Ames Lab's Scalable and Computing Laboratory, and has been used primarily for streaming in meetings proceedings. Cruz-Neira hopes that as ISU faculty and staff from all disciplines learn of the many opportunities provided by the newest AG node, they will use the technology to bring their students live lectures from around the world, participate in professional meetings or join in collaborations with other colleagues.

"I'd been asked to present a keynote address at the University of Texas in March, but I have conflicts at that time and can't travel," Cruz-Neira said. "Because I am available during the time of the keynote, though, I can present it to the group through the use of the Access Grid."

In time, Cruz-Neira predicts Iowa State will invest in additional AG nodes as their popularity grows. She encourages interested parties to contact Jewell, 4-1827, for more information and scheduling.

"There are events that are happening daily around the world that are being accessed by the AG node, and students can be participating in all that," Cruz-Neira explained. "Students can see, and even talk to, distinguished lecturers, which really expands their access to other reputable faculty, mentors or researchers.

"This also opens the door for other course options that can be shared this way," she continued. "Maybe we can begin to find expertise elsewhere that complements the programs we offer here. This is such an excellent opportunity for our students."


"It's like an open meeting. Everyone can talk at the same time, and there are not buttons or controls running things. The video streams, cameras and microphones involved are live at all the sites all the time."

Carolina Cruz-Neira