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NSF Funds Prof. Sen's Work on Immersive Dome Environments

March 3, 2010

artslabUNM Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Pradeep Sen is the lead PI for a team of researchers from ECE, UNM's ARTS Lab, the Santa Fe Complex, and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) that was awarded a $597,220 NSF grant on March 1 to study immersive environments using dome and other technologies.

Their proposal, titled "Consortium for Fulldome and Immersive Technology Development," aims to create immersive environments that are more accessible to everyday users. It will also drive innovation and foster growth of the digital media industry here in New Mexico.

"Domes are naturally an immersive medium," explains Dr. Sen. "Your entire field of view is covered by the computer-generated imagery. We propose to explore new ways to produce dome content efficiently as well as study how a team would use the dome to interact collaboratively with data."

Though he led the proposal effort, Sen says it was a team effort among partners in New Mexico interested in digital media. Co-PIs on the proposal are UNM Computer Science (CS) Emeritus Professor Ed Angel (who is co-founder and former director of the ARTS Lab), Associate Director of ARTS Lab Immersive Media David Beining, School of Engineering Interim Dean Arup Maji, and IAIA Dean Ann Filemyr. Other senior personnel who will be involved in the project include ECE Professor Tom Caudell, Santa Fe Complex Researchers Stephen Guerin and Steve Smith, CS Assistant Professor Joe Kniss,and IAIA Chair of New Media Arts Carlos Peinado.

"Our proposal was selected for funding because of the diverse team that we assembled for the project," says Sen. "For example, David Beining has been working on and promoting dome technology for years. We would not have gotten this grant without people like him leading the way with these exciting technologies."

This is Dr. Sen's third NSF award as PI, one being a prestigious NSF CAREER Award that he received in June 2009. Dr. Sen has now been awarded more than $1.1 million from NSF as a PI since arriving at ECE in the fall of 2006.

Making Immersion Accessible 
Part of the Fulldome and Immersive Technology project will focus on developing novel technologies that make immersive environments possible without having to construct dome structures. The researchers believe that this will lead to more commercialization opportunities for the technology.

"Not everyone has a fulldome at home," notes Sen. "The way to make these technologies more accessible is to develop ways to turn any ordinary environment, say the corner of a room, into an immersive projection environment. Once everyone has an immersive environment in their home, immersive content will naturally follow."

Dr. Sen plans to start the work by creating a flexible software framework for developing dome and immersive applications. The framework would act as a middle layer between the developer's application and the display software to give the user flexibility in creating new applications.

"In traditional computers, developers use platforms such as OpenGL or DirectX to decouple their code from the display," Sen said. "We need to do something similar for projection domes where the software infrastructure will automatically adjust based on the configuration of the environment."

One important aspect of this research is that it strengthens the bonds between the UNM Advanced Graphics Lab, the research laboratory at UNM that focuses on cutting-edge research in the technical aspects of computer graphics and digital media, and the ARTS Lab, UNM's state-of-the-art facility for interdisciplinary research in digital media. The ARTS Lab also helps build connections between UNM and other digital media organizations in the state.

"This proposal is important because it is the first step in formalizing the relationship between the Advanced Graphics Lab and our partner on campus, the ARTS Lab," Sen said. "Furthermore, it will build on the connections UNM has in the state and help accelerate the growth of the digital media industry in New Mexico."

The UNM Advanced Graphics Lab (AGL) was founded by Dr. Sen and Dr. Kniss in the fall of 2006 with the mission to do research into the science and technology of computer graphics and digital media. Aside from the two faculty members, the lab hosts a set of associated researchers, visiting professors, and eight full-time graduate students with an annual budget of $500,000. The AGL team does research in areas as diverse as high-end rendering, computational photography, computer vision and visualization. Research from AGL is published in journals such as ACM Transactions on Graphics, IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, and the Eurographics Computer Graphics Forum. 
The video game development program that Dr. Sen has started through AGL is now ranked in the top 50 in North America by the Princeton Review and Gamepro magazine, out of 500 such programs that were reviewed. Dr. Sen plans to leverage the success of his game development program to build a team of students that can develop content for the dome project.

The ARTS Lab (Art, Research, Technology and Science Laboratory) was formed in response to the state's Media Industries Strategic Plan, and it supports innovation and growth in film, new media, simulation, telehealth, game technology, image processing, scientific visualization, national security applications, and new markets for content.

New Workforce Skills 
The project will also affect the education of New Mexico's workforce of the future, and both UNM and the Institute of American Indian Arts will have a key role in this area. For example, UNM classes taught through the ARTS Lab will leverage dome technologies developed for student projects. In Santa Fe, students at IAIA will gain hands-on experience by working with a dome that will be set up on their campus using funds from this grant. Furthermore, the dome research will be integrated into the existing educational programs at UNM.

Researchers at the Santa Fe Complex, particularly Stephen Guerin and Steve Smith, will contribute to innovations in immersive technologies. A renowned center of research in complexity science, the Santa Fe Complex brings together teams of creative scientists, technologists, and artists to solve complex problems to meet business, government, and social needs.

"One of the key challenges with trying to grow a sustainable industry is to develop a critical mass of interested people," Sen said. "With the partnership we have formed between the Santa Fe Complex, IAIA, the ARTS Lab, and the Advanced Graphics Lab, we now have the critical mass to move forward. We are very excited to see what we can accomplish together."