Queensland University of Technology squares off with a unique feat of audiovisual engineering.
Text:/ Derek Powell
As I walked up to the two-storey-high screen, a life-sized whale appeared to eye me curiously. With a lazy flip of his enormous fluke, he disappeared into the distance, leaving the sonorous notes of his mysterious song resonating throughout the atrium.
The Cube hits you right in the face when you first walk into the brand new Science and Engineering Centre at Queensland University of Technology. It’s meant to, of course. But what exactly is it? I asked Gavin Winter, QUT’s Cube project manager.
“The best explanation is that it is a multi-node interactive display wall…” he began enthusiastically, sounding like a typical Windows error message – totally accurate but also completely incomprehensible. Sensing my confusion, he switched down a gear or two: “…but perhaps the best way of thinking about it is as a giant, $3.5m multiplayer video game that’s capable of absorbing busloads of school students at a time and switching them on to science and engineering”.
“So how did it evolve?” I asked, feeling just a little more enlightened.
“Ah, that’s a long story,” he mused. It is long, but the story also puts audiovisual technology front and centre in the role of community engagement, and that makes it worth the telling.
First, let’s get some facts and figures out of the way. The Cube is actually six separate display zones totalling 145 megapixels, the largest of which is a spectacular 14m long by 9m high. Several of these zones are split between edge blended projected images on top, and dozens of interactive multi-touch monitors lower down which allow visitors to interact with and control the single giant image that spreads seamlessly across the monitors and projectors. The images are real-time animations, created by a metric tonne of custom-built servers housed two floors above. Despite The Cube consuming a staggering 45kW of power when operating, the whole building is eco-friendly, powered by rooftop solar cells and recovered heat using state-of-the-art ‘trigeneration’ power systems.
JEWEL IN THE CROWN
The Cube sparkles in the foyer of the Science and Engineering Centre, incongruously located metres from one of Brisbane’s earliest historic buildings – Old Government House, on the Garden’s Point QUT campus. Ironically, it was this location that spawned the Cube in the first place.
A visit to Old Government House and Parliament House is on the agenda for every school student in Brisbane, so QUT saw the opportunity to entice hundreds of weekly visitors to extend their stay in the Science and Engineering Centre – and to hopefully raise the profile of science, technology, engineering and maths that have suffered downturns in enrolments across the country.
The Centre’s project director Anthony Perrau explained that the vice chancellor’s vision for the new structure was “to be a building that could reach out and showcase science and technology to the broader Brisbane and perhaps the world community”. The question was how to create a feature exciting enough to draw in the students – and their teachers. Perrau knew the answer lay in some form of high impact audiovisual so he called in Professors Ian McKinnon (QUT Institute for Future Environments) and Jeff Jones (Interaction Design); together they sketched out a daring brief for an interactive attraction that would fit the bill. Time was of the essence as the building was already underway, so Jones set about organising a team to convert the dream to reality.
Gavin Winter was one of the first recruits and he recalled those early days: “We really began with a picture on a napkin. The Cube actually started out as a cylinder because the void that we’re in today was simply a hole through the building. We went through a lot of concept forming exercises with sketch artists and consultants to form basically the structure we’re standing in front of today.”
That structure is now more like a boomerang in shape with images on both sides of its elongated vertical surfaces. The outside faces have four separate projector and monitor display walls, two on the ground level and two on the floor above. The inside face, called ‘The Wedge’, spreads across two walls that push up two storeys high into the atrium. Four Panasonic PT DZ-21K 20,000 lumen projectors form a seamless edge blended image that can be viewed from floor level or from the second level balconies and walkways. But along the bottom, the picture continues onto an array of 20 interactive touchscreen monitors – and this is where the magic really happens.
The 55-inch touchscreens are made by Multitouch from Finland and they really are unlike anything seen before. “Their product is unique in the world in that it is a ‘computer vision through screen’ touchscreen, which is essentially cameras seeing through the panel not only your hand, but yourself. So the touchpanel knows you are there,” Winter explained.
“The unique characteristic of this technology is that it can be strung together in lengths. Typically a touchpanel will have very large edges and you can’t do that.” Later he showed me a panel undergoing maintenance and I could see the arrangement of 32 infrared cameras that sit behind the screen amongst the LED illumination array, looking out through the LCD panel.
Each touchscreen, with its internal PC, becomes a ‘game controller’ that several people can manipulate at once, all linked back to the servers. There are currently five different programs, all developed in-house by a team of programmers and visual artists. Though the computer and display systems are all integrated, different programs can run at once using different faces of The Cube. ‘The Virtual Reef’ is a majestic, life-size animation of a real part of the Great Barrier Reef that allows viewers to manipulate and interact with a scientifically accurate cross section of passing underwater inhabitants. As students explore, they learn about specific marine animal behaviours and relationships. Other programs include the ‘Physics Playroom’, filled with virtual building blocks where people can come together to construct (and destroy) each other’s creations in engaging physics simulations. You can toss a block into the air on one touchscreen and see it come down again to interact with what’s happening several screens away. New projects will be rolled out every six months or so to keep the content fresh and QUT students will have the opportunity to work on content creation.
To make it all work, QUT contracted integrator ProAV Solutions Queensland (formerly AVI) for the supply and installation of equipment and more than 8km of mostly cat6a wiring. There are no less than four separate cat6 networks connecting the custom built SGI servers to the displays. Video and multi-channel audio comes via AMX DXLink cat6 transmitter/receiver pairs; there is a separate network to handle only the touch commands between panel and server. A third network allows the servers to communicate with each other to synchronise the animation elements as they pass between screens and a fourth network, the QUT LAN, provides overall communication and control.
ProAV’s technology solutions specialist Shannan Brooksby has lived and breathed the project for two years. He explained that because the whole Cube system has to remain as flexible as possible, there are five AMX Enova routers handling trunking and the interconnection between the graphics outputs from the servers, and the projectors and monitors. Extra transmitters allow ad hoc sources from virtually anywhere in the foyer to be routed to any part or all of the display. For the edge blended projectors, the router outputs feed TV One CORIOmaster videowall processors which provide ultimate flexibility to send any image to any combination of screens. An AMX network provides behind the scenes control over the complex routing schemes while RMS software monitors and reports on the system and provides asset management for all the hardware.
Audio has certainly not been forgotten. A 96 x 80 Biamp Tesira DSP system provides mixing and processing with outputs transported and routed via the AMX DGX down to the main displays. To tame the difficult acoustics of the space, a 10-driver line array sits beneath each monitor to provide clicks and localised audio feedback as users move things on screen. Other speakers, also specially created by Brisbane manufacturer Acoustic Technologies, include multi-element dipole enclosures to provide ambient sound and a truly massive custom subwoofer that sits inside the screen enclosure to help give life to the whale song.
So does it all work? Can a bunch of projectors and monitors actually get people in and inspire them? If the visitors I saw are anything to judge, then the answer is a resounding yes. The most common comment heard from visitors was simply, “Wow!”
Winter is well pleased with the response from his visitors. “Kids know exactly what to do when they get here,” he noted. “It’s just that gravitational pull that the walls have, and straight away they go – ‘well I understand what this is; now how can I play with it?’”
There are 30 Silicon Graphics workstations serving content to the Cube walls.
Each serves video to two panels or projectors.
Dual quad-core Intel Xeon E5-2643 3.33GHz CPUs
32GB quad-channel DDR3, 1.6GHz RAM
160GB SSD (operating system)
1TB SATA HD (data)
EVGA 2690 NVIDIA GeForce GTX 690 dual-GPU graphics adapter
Creative X-Fi Xtreme PCIe sound adapter
QUT – The Cube: www.thecube.qut.edu.au
ProAV Solutions Queensland: (07) 3367 3300 or www.proavsolutions.com.au
Panasonic Projection: panasonic.net/avc/projector/products
Acoustic Technologies: www.atprofessional.com.au