Imaginations drive wall

Steven Schultz

Senior research scholar and lecturer Ben Shedd leads his class in front of the huge display wall in the Frist Campus Center. Workers are putting the finishing touches on the wall, while a student club is deciding how best to use it.


Riddle: What part of the Frist Campus Center is designed to be:

• a performance space as well as a participant in performances;
• a bulletin board announcing new events as well as a new event that is being announced; and
• a product of computer science research as well as a tool for scientific research in fields from geosciences to astrophysics?

Answer: The 18-foot section of wall between the coffee shop and the main stairwell on Frist's 100 level.

Known as "the digital high-resolution display wall," the surface is really a giant computer monitor, 18 feet wide by 6.75 feet high. Turned off, it is just a dark expanse of wall. Switched on, the wall becomes a lively display space driven by the imaginations of those programming the computers behind it.

The Frist display wall grew out of a longstanding research project in the computer science department. Specialists in computer architecture, programming and graphics have been building larger, sharper and cheaper display walls, while senior research scholar and lecturer Ben Shedd has been developing innovative ways to use the technology.

Two years ago, in his class called "Visual and Audio Design for Large-Scale Computer Displays," Shedd assigned students to ponder how a display wall might be used in the nascent campus center. Fueled by the enthusiasm of students and administrators who saw their work, this exercise developed into a working project.

"This is a research project that has moved out of the lab and into what is essentially a public space," said Shedd, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and a pioneer of giant-format IMAX films.

Decisions about how to use the wall are loosely in the hands of a club of students who have taken Shedd's classes and have helped shepherd the project in Frist. "We want it to be open to the community and have community projects," said club member Wilmot Kidd, a senior.

Kidd said he hopes to find uses that go beyond simple promotion of groups or events and encourage projects that take full advantage of the screen's immersive environment. Currently, the wall has been displaying still photos and images that are designed to take advantage of a wide, nearly frameless field of view. Within the next month, the group hopes to develop visual and audio performances that might take place a few times a day. They have received interest from dance groups that want to perform in front of the wall to life-size visual accompaniment.

Students have proposed using the wall as a bulletin board, an interactive source of campus and world news or a forum for community discussions. It has also shown promise as a method for displaying large amounts of scientific data, such as the structure and density of gasses in intergalactic space.

The student club has deliberately avoided setting up a formal program of displays on the wall, preferring to wait to see how the University community responds to the initial trials over the next few months, said Kidd.

Shedd and Kidd said that one of their goals is to use the wall's overwhelming size to break people out of the mold of being passive recipients of television and other media and to think about how they could create their own media images.

"It has been interesting to watch the transition in people's thinking as they go from being a recipient of the media to someone who controls the content," said Shedd.

"It's really a place that can come alive totally according to your imagination," said Kidd.

Suggestions and questions about the display wall should be sent to Kidd at <>.

October 16, 2000
Vol. 90, No. 6
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Close encounter: Crowd relishes access to president
Clinton claims he's an heir of the era
Behind-the-scenes work pays off

Imaginations drive wall
Scholars cross disciplines to spark new ideas
Visitors spur lively exchange

Spotlight / People
Calendar of events
Nassau notes

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Staff writer: Yvonne Chiu Hays
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Contributing writers: Marilyn Marks, Steven Schultz
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett,
Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett