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Creating Dynamic Virtual Spaces

As innovation races ahead at light speeds, there is a dire need for all of us to make a critical design analysis and construct a new design architecture for interacting with the artificial spaces we are creating. By fusing architectural design with inspiring space and flow management, we can bring together the lessons of high-end AV techniques, virtual reality, and supercomputing collaborations to create remote presence in virtual environments.


An example of a designed physical space for working within virtual environments and advanced collaborative models is the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) ACCESS facility in Arlington, Va. The facility is designed in a modular fashion where each individual studio can be considered as a stand-alone “center,” or the collection of spaces can be taken together as a complete and functioning whole. An advanced AV capability is designed throughout, allowing for the easy manipulation of video, audio, and data across the various spaces.

It's also important to consider the ability to broadcast from high-end systems to lower noninteractive levels of visualization and information interfaces. An advanced AV infrastructure can help facilitate these multiple types of needs. There are three main areas that comprise the majority of the spaces at NCSA ACCESS. A demonstration area, which can seat up to 50 people, utilizes multiple projections and an “ImmersaDesk” virtual reality display system. The Access Grid is a technology that is frequently used to manage the many meetings in the demonstration area. A conference room, which can seat from 6 to 20 people, also incorporates the use of multiple projectors and the Access Grid. In the conference room, the Access Grid operator is removed from the room. This is an example of how remote operations could be used to facilitate meetings and manage resources.

The third main space is a training area, which can handle 20 workstations. Surrounding these main areas are collaboration studios for small-scale meetings or breakout rooms and can also be used for individual demonstrations. There are also office spaces for managing facility operations. The facility is directly connected by gigabit Ethernet into the Mid-Atlantic Crossroads gigaPOP (gigabit point of presence), which in turn connects NCSA ACCESS into the National Lambda Rail, Internet2, and other broad bandwidth network infrastructures. NCSA ACCESS acts as a portal into these networks —which includes not only the physical connectivity to an international scientific grid of resources, but, more important, to the researchers and scientists involved with using those resources.

The components for creating a dynamic physical space for enabling virtual environments lay all around us. It requires an open-minded architect with technical knowledge who can liaison and enable the many disciplines involved with virtual environments. The goal is to develop a design, which can efficiently incorporate all the needs and functions demanded by such an environment.

Virtual environments demand the synthesis of multiple technical professions into a functional real physical space. By using an architectural methodology as a binding mechanism, a comprehensive design can be developed and the end goal of creating virtual presence can be achieved.

Tom Coffin is the technical coordinator at the NCSA ACCESS facility in Arlington, Va. He can be reached at

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