In the most advanced library on the planet, NC State harnesses the tools of the digital age to spark an innovation revolution.
By David Hunt
A stream of flat stratus clouds wanders past the new James B. Hunt, Jr. Library, drifting lazily in the early morning sunshine and checking its reflection in the building's dark glass windows. Like the cloud bank, the sleek modern structure seems to rise over its surroundings, gracefully stretched out on a knoll overlooking Centennial Campus, North Carolina State University's research park.
You might not guess it was a library if you chanced to see its gently curving profile from Main Campus Drive on the technology-rich campus, home to engineers, scientists and high-tech entrepreneurs. After all, libraries are decidedly old school.
"We don't build palaces to books anymore," says Maurice York, head of information technology for the university's library system. "What we value has been shifting toward technology. That's the tool that is used for research now."
And yet this striking building is a kind of 21st century palace, as impressive for its architecture as it is for its wealth of futuristic features. The lead designer, the Oslo- and New York-based firm Snøhetta, is renowned for designing landmarks, including the National September 11th Memorial Museum Pavilion, the Oslo Opera House and the Library at Alexandria, Egypt — modern successor to the long-lost original, a wonder of the ancient world.
But York is right, the Hunt Library is stocked with the tools of a new age: ultra high-definition displays, digital multimedia systems, super-fast computers and a cloud network that extends its virtual presence far beyond the physical boundaries of the building. There are more than 100 group study rooms — their walls composed of whiteboard material — to meet the nearly insatiable demand for collaborative space on campus.
The building is made to give students and faculty the tools they need to plan, create and innovate without letting the technology get in the way. It allows for an intuitive work flow: book a room for a brainstorming session, then check out a digital camera to create some content for your project. Next, reserve space on the library's enormous server and share your files with colleagues on campus or around the world. Render an animation over the library's cloud computing network, then play it on one of the highest resolution displays in the world.
"When the state legislature funded the library, a lot of people questioned what a library should look like for a place like Centennial Campus," says York, standing just outside the teaching and visualization lab. "This is the answer."
If technology is front and center in the new Hunt Library, there's still a place for books — lots of books — right in the heart of the library. Thanks to a technological marvel called the bookBot, the library holds more than 1.5 million volumes, including the university's working collections for engineering, biotechnology and textiles. The books are held in more than 18,000 bins accessible via the bookBot's robotic arms.
The system is a wonder to behold (and can be viewed through a giant glass window in "Robot Alley" on the library's first floor). When a patron requests a book on the library's website, the bookBot goes into action. One of its arms rushes between the 50-foot-tall stacks of metallic bins, locates the correct one, and automatically pulls it from the shelf. It lifts the bin up to a loading dock on the second floor, where a library staff member is waiting. The staff member pulls the book from the bin and places it in a cart for delivery to the library customer, usually within five minutes. Once a customer returns a book, it's placed in any available bin and returned to the stacks. Each book's location is recorded and tracked through the use of barcodes.
Of course the purpose of the system isn't to amaze visitors with its automated precision. The bookBot is remarkably efficient, storing books in about one-ninth the space required by traditional shelves.
Sparking the Imagination
As he walks through the library's expansive lobby, sunlight streaming through its soaring glass walls, York says as much work has gone into designing the user experience as designing the physical space. In fact, the two are inseparable.
"You have this 'wow' experience when you walk inside," he says. "It opens up the imagination. Almost simultaneously you have a reaction of, 'Ah!' and an urge to play. That's the foundation of human discovery."
It's also one of the core strengths of NC State, where the concept of "design thinking" is embedded in the research, teaching and learning on campus. Nearly a year before the Hunt Library opened, the staff invited 21 students enrolled in a digital design course to create content for the facility's enormous high-resolution video displays. Once the team of computer science, industrial design and graphic design students got to work, they found the possibilities offered by the technology — and the building — awe-inspiring.
"It's a designer's dream," says design student Dwight Davis.
While one group of students developed an interactive game to showcase the capabilities of the game lab, others focused on the overall user experience for the library. A relatively new discipline, experience design combines expertise in areas as diverse as cognitive and perceptual psychology, architecture, computer engineering, branding strategy and information architecture, as well as graphic, product and interaction design, to help influence the ways people move through and interact with a physical space.
"The challenge is that there's not a single way to use the space. You have to design for a multiplicity of ways. You have to think about the space as a living thing. It's fuzzy," says Scott Townsend, associate professor of graphic design. "But bright students get excited about that."
In fact, Townsend — who taught the course in partnership with two other faculty members — found that students couldn't get enough of the challenges.
"They took it so seriously," he says. "It wasn't just about speculating in the classroom. They could walk into the Hunt Library and talk to the professionals building the library. It was tangible. They were bowled over by the opportunity. Some students put in 80 hours a week on the project."
That's not surprising. Where else could an undergraduate in design or computer science get an open-door invitation to help create the next-generation library with jaw-dropping technology? Take the five Christie MicroTiles displays, for example. At 21 feet wide, these video walls dwarf every other monitor on campus, and even surpass the size of the MicroTiles display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
With resolution four times as great as a standard HD monitor and a color gamut far exceeding broadcast television specs, the displays are amazingly crisp and bright. For the students designing a video game for the system, it was the ultimate in hands-on education.
"The greatest experience I've had in college," says graphic design senior Yusuf McCoy.
It may also be the door to a career. Another faculty member teaching the course, Tim Buie, associate professor of industrial design, says opportunities in the game industry are exploding. More than 40 game companies — including some of the most successful — are headquartered in North Carolina. That's a big difference from a generation ago.
"When I was an undergraduate, I never even used a computer," he says. "Today, the revenue generated by video games rivals the revenue generated by films."
The industry is serious business in more ways than one. Interactive media is used by military recruiters, corporate trainers, health educators and classroom teachers to reach and engage people of all ages — from preschoolers to retirees.
The rise of digital technologies like video games and interactive media is not only impacting students' career choices, it's changing the way information is presented — not just in libraries, but in public spaces of all kinds.
Since the creation of the Advanced Media Lab at NC State eight years ago, Pat FitzGerald, associate professor of art and design, has watched these changes sweep through society, touching virtually every aspect of life.
"Everything has to be interpreted through an electronic medium these days," he says. "You can no longer have a canary under a glass case and call it an exhibit. It impacts everything from museums to advertising agencies."
And now higher education.
Several of FitzGerald's students have already taken advantage of the new technologies in the Hunt Library, creating interactive programs using Microsoft's Kinect system, which uses an infrared sensor to track the movement of objects and people in three dimensions.
One project captures video of people as they walk past the display, then projects their avatar on the monitor, along with a thought bubble overhead. The project uses some of the same technology devised for the popular smartphone app, Angry Birds. Another is a digital re-creation of the Color Wall, a mechanical kaleidoscope in the D. H. Hill Library on the university's north campus that has fascinated students for nearly five decades. "We are calling this project 'Color Wall 2.0.' It's basically the Color Wall on steroids," FitzGerald says.
Future projects include an extremely slow motion video piece featuring NC State basketball players and a 360-degree interactive video program that puts viewers in the middle of the action.
Along with the opportunities opened up by the Hunt Library come a few challenges. For design students, that includes becoming conversant in the vocabulary of the digital age. Jim Martin, a junior in art and design, has a head start. He began teaching himself the programming languages C and Java more than two years ago. That helped him over the summer, when he developed a software platform to take advantage of the MicroTiles displays.
"It's not just a screen, it's like a cable TV network," he says. "There are five screens in the library and they need programming for every hour of the day. That's a lot of content to create. And because of the size and unique dimensions of the displays, the content has to be hand created."
On top of that, the processing power needed to create video and animation files for the MicroTiles is off the charts. A single animation recently took more than 500 hours to render in the Advanced Media Lab, FitzGerald says. In the future, students will be able to speed up the process six-fold by using the library's new render farm — a super-fast computer array.
Technology Meets the Humanities
Although the Hunt Library anchors Centennial Campus, home to NC State's Colleges of Engineering, Textiles and Veterinary Medicine, it's been enthusiastically embraced across campus, in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. And perhaps no faculty member has been as excited by the promise of the new library's technological prowess as English Professor John Wall, who's been at NC State for four decades.
"The technology finally caught up with my ambition," he says.
In his office in Tompkins Hall, beneath a towering bookcase packed with the works of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney, Wall looks more like a scholar of Elizabethan English literature than a multimedia producer. He is both.
For the past few years he's been working with David Hill, assistant professor of architecture, and Hill's graduate research assistant Joshua Stephens, on a project to create a digital simulation of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Not the iconic church you can visit today, but the old cathedral built in the Middle Ages and destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The first part of the project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is an interactive virtual-reality program that re-creates the preaching station — called Paul's Cross — that stood in the courtyard of the cathedral.
Drawing from historical images and a detailed survey of the original foundation prepared by the cathedral's resident archaeologist, John Schofield, Wall's digital model allows viewers to explore the area and see what this part of St. Paul's looked like from any angle. Viewers can drop themselves into the audience in the courtyard at 10 in the morning on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1622 to experience a sermon delivered by John Donne (pronounced Dunn), dean of the cathedral and one of the literary giants of the age.
It's notable that Wall was able to find an actor with expertise in pronouncing early modern English to record the sermon, two hours in length, for the project. It's remarkable that he was able to map out the courtyard with such precision that acoustic engineers could reproduce the sound as it was experienced that day from various positions in the audience. They even added the ambient sounds of carts, dogs, birds and tolling bells.
The Virtual Paul's Cross project will be installed in the Hunt Library's teaching and visualization lab this spring, giving visitors a front row seat to history. It's the kind of immersive experience you'd expect at a theme park, not a library.
But, says Wall, that's the power of digital tools: their ability to breathe life into literature, history and science. It's why educators like Wall and many of his colleagues at NC State are embracing the emerging discipline of the digital humanities. Wall has been inspired, in part, by his daughter's work in the video game industry.
"She's fluent in this really immersive way of experiencing alternative worlds," he says. "One of the games is set in Renaissance Venice and the historical accuracy of the graphics is remarkable. There's no reason why that kind of interactive technology shouldn't be harnessed for pedagogical purposes."
Digital tools not only offer a different way of teaching and learning, at their best they present ideas and information from a new perspective, resulting in a better understanding of complex material. For example, Donne's sermons have been available in written form for centuries. But modern students have never experienced them as they were delivered, from the pulpit. Until now.
"We tend to think of these sermons as theological essays that were intended to be read," Wall says. "But they actually were more like scripts for performances that unfolded in real time. If you read these as essays you never recognize the effort Donne made to get levity into the presentations, or wit and energy."
To pull together a state-of-the-art multimedia project takes Wall far outside his discipline. On any given day you may
find him working with a linguist, architect, actor, acoustic engineer, archaeologist or research assistant. Experts from Oxford, Cambridge, the British Library and, of course,
St. Paul's Cathedral are among the project's advisers.
Wall notes that some on his team speak a different language than he does — a language of model-building, imaging and rendering. And this project is a world away from his first grant at NC State 40 years ago, a teaching grant to transfer Renaissance engravings of St. Paul's to slides for use in the classroom.
"The humanities in the past 40 years have gone through a revolution," he says. "They are becoming much richer and more interdisciplinary."
So Wall — like the humanities — is rapidly adapting to the change and embracing the possibilities created by the new library.
"I think the opportunities are unlimited," he says.
Across the hall, another English professor, David Rieder, is testing the limits of the library's technology. A generation younger than Wall and just as open to change, Rieder is eager to cross the divide between science and the humanities. And so are his students.
"For students, the historical disciplinary boundaries don't really make a lot of sense," he says. "And for younger faculty, who grew up in a similar culture and went to graduate programs that integrated digital tools into their studies, those are counterproductive lines in the sand."
Rieder is a faculty member in the university's Ph.D. program in communication, rhetoric, and digital media, and a digital pioneer in his own right. His 2010 project, "Typographia: A Hybrid, Alphabetic Exploration of Raleigh, NC," combined photographic and textual representations of Raleigh landmarks in an interactive study of the interplay of words and images.
For another piece, exhibited at CAM Raleigh — the city's
new contemporary art museum — Rieder and doctoral
student Kevin Brock put letters from a poem in place of
pixels to create images. They've been invited to display that work on one of the video walls in the Hunt Library, this time using text from real-time Twitter posts to create images of
the human body.
"As you walk into this space in front of the screen, you are
that image," he explains. "As you move back and forth through 10 different layers, you see different words creating different parts of your body."
Pull out a smartphone and send a tweet and it instantly becomes part of the image. It's the ultimate interactive program.
"It's fun," says Rieder, but that's not the only reason to explore the intersection of text and images.
"When writing breaks free of its representational role, it can cross over and become something new," he says. "Then there's an opportunity to write visually and textually in new ways."
"What does it mean to be human?" he muses. "We have a capacity as humans to use our bodies to reach an audience, to use hand gestures and body postures to accentuate what we are saying. But digital media has redefined the body and raised new questions about how we use the body to communicate."
The effect of technology has been to render the body as an abstraction, he notes. And that opens the door to exploring new ways of using gesture, touch and posture to communicate, apart from the body.
"It will be interesting to see where that goes," he says.
Echoing the phrase programmers traditionally write when learning a new programming language, Rieder adds, "My work is a 'Hello World' piece. We have the basic connectivity, and it's compelling. Now, what's the next step?"
Facing the Future
At the Hunt Library, the next step is to stay on the leading edge of the technology driving all these possibilities so students and faculty like Rieder can ask tougher questions and discover better answers. For his part, the library's IT director says there are plenty of options ahead.
"It changes everything," York says of the Hunt Library. "It provides us with new tools and new ways for approaching our work. In a sense, we don't know all the ways this technology can be adapted and used. But how great is it to be at NC State, a place where people are thinking about technology and discovering what we can do with it, how we can interact with it, to make ourselves better, in a human way?"
The vision and drive behind the new facility, NCSU Libraries Director Susan K. Nutter, sees the Hunt Library not just as a building with impressive specifications, but as a living laboratory equipped to meet the challenges of the future, wherever they lead. Her focus is on people, as much as the future.
"The Hunt Library will be whatever the library user needs it to be," she says.
That philosophy is sure to carry the Hunt Library — and NC State — well into the 22nd century.