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March 14, 2008

Glen Galvin

Glen Galvin, a system support specialist who works on ISU's C6 virtual reality room, has a hands-on knack with most things technological. Photo by Bob Elbert.

High-tech tinkerer

by Mike Krapfl, News Service

Glen Galvin has a head for tinkering.

Walk into his Howe Hall office and back in the corner you'll find the remnants of a hot-air engine from the late 1800s. The heavy, quarter-horsepower machines typically were used to pump water for livestock. The one in Galvin's office was rescued from an engine teaching lab -- complete with a sticker identifying it as the property of Iowa State College. Galvin has visions of one day restoring it to working order.

Make another visit to his office inside the Virtual Reality Applications Center and you might find him working over a cell phone with his tiny electronics tools. He's known around the center as the person to see if a cell phone or PDA isn't working.

And he's the person to call when C6, the virtual reality room that surrounds users with computer-generated images at the highest resolution in the world, isn't running quite right. That's some major-league hardware to troubleshoot: There's an HP 48-node computer cluster featuring 96 graphics processing units, 24 Sony digital projectors, an eight-channel audio system and ultrasonic motion-tracking technology.

With so many moving parts to the C6, how can anybody keep it all running?

"I know where every single cable, nut and bolt is in there," said Galvin, a system support specialist at the virtual reality center. "I know where it is and what it's doing."

Yes, he said in his matter-of-fact way, "I can fix a lot of small things and big things."

And that's a huge relief to everybody at the virtual reality center, said Kevin Teske, another system support specialist at the center.

"The thought of going in one day and hearing that Glen was never coming back gives me the cold sweats," Teske said.

A brush with disaster

Galvin grew up on a farm about 12 miles north of Alta in northwest Iowa. He knows chores, and he can tell you about baling hay and staying busy.

He'll even pull a box off the top of an office filing cabinet and show you how he kept himself extra busy the summer after high school and earned some money for his first year at Iowa State.

On July 19, 1989, the fan disk inside the tail engine of United Airlines Flight 232, flying from Denver to Philadelphia via Chicago, failed over the Galvin farm. That sent turbine blades flying into the plane's tail section, severing hydraulic lines and disabling the plane's controls.

Crew members used the plane's throttles to turn the aircraft and control altitude. Somehow, they guided the plane to Sioux City's Sioux Gateway Airport, where they attempted an emergency landing. The tip of the plane's right wing hit the runway first and the plane tumbled and broke apart, killing 111 of the 296 people on board.

Crash investigators needed help recovering parts shed by the aircraft, and Galvin spent his free time on the search grid looking for pieces and turning in what he found to the sheriff's office. There were rewards for certain pieces and Galvin found some valuable ones.

That box in his office contains a few pieces the investigators weren't interested in.

Searching for those parts and talking to one of the investigators sparked an interest in aerospace engineering. And that's what Galvin decided he'd study when he moved to Iowa State.

First exposure

Galvin gave engineering a try, but ultimately decided computer science was a better fit. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1995 and went to work for a small Cedar Rapids software company.

His primary responsibility was to hit the road and do software and sales support. He did the work for about four years, but started to tire of travel and software that wasn't much of a challenge.

He saw an ad for an Iowa State job and decided to apply. At the very least, it would be good practice for later job interviews.

He showed up after driving all night from an assignment in Springfield, Ill. He changed his shirt in the car. He had a migraine headache. And all of a sudden he was experiencing virtual reality for the first time.

"It felt like someone was grabbing hold of the lobes of my brain and twisting and tearing," he said.

But, much to his surprise, he was called back for two more interviews and eventually offered a job at his alma mater.

"He has grown with us since we were tiny," said James Oliver, director of the CyberInnovation Institute and the Virtual Reality Applications Center. "He's an absolutely indispensable guy."

Oliver said that's because of the breadth of Galvin's technical skill with hardware, software and the center's exotic combinations of projector and tracking systems. It's also because Galvin is the kind of person who doesn't get rattled when there's a problem, and he is willing to work with the center's 50 faculty affiliates and 200 students.

"He has a service mindset," Oliver said. "He'll do whatever it takes to help the community here."

More tinkering

Iowa State's virtual reality technology certainly has come a long way since Galvin's first look. Back then, images were projected on three screens. Now, images appear on six screens and completely surround users. Today's images also are much brighter and clearer than in the old days.

That's one of the things Galvin likes about his job.

He's no longer working with tried-and-true technology. He's in a research center. He's working with scientists who are pushing technology. And he's working with companies and vendors that are doing what they can to provide tools that advance the center's work.

"The high-end technology is a very big draw," he said. "I didn't realize what a great opportunity this was going to be."

And so Galvin is happy to spend his work days keeping the C6 up and running. He also takes care of the virtual reality center's networks and wireless connections. Then there are research devices and security firewalls to monitor and fix.

That old engine in his office and all the others he has fixed up as a hobby are the perfect break from his work at the lab.

"The old engines are about as far from high-tech as you can get," Galvin said. "If they don't move or work, you can actually see the problem. There are no electronics or programs involved."

They are, in other words, a tinkerer's dream.


"The thought of going in one day and hearing that Glen was never coming back gives me the cold sweats."

Kevin Teske, system support specialist