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May 12, 2005

Making Pitt Work: Computer programmers create virtual worlds

Pitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty here get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields.

But behind the scenes, University staff, some 6,500 strong across five campuses, often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.

From mailroom workers to data entry specialists, costume designers to biosafety officers, photographers to accountants, staff at Pitt perform tasks great and small, year-in and year-out, for the greater good of the University.

Like the proverbial purloined letter, some staff, such as secretaries, receptionists and maintenance workers, go unnoticed even though daily they plug away at their jobs in plain view.

“I often have referred to the dedicated members of the University’s staff as the ‘unsung heroes’ of the institution,” said Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. “Most often, they tackle their responsibilities with a sense of pride and with real loyalty to Pitt. Those qualities add richness and strength to the social fabric of our own community and also have an impact beyond our campus borders.”

This is one in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the lesser known employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.

Matthew Kelley and Sean Ellis can swoop up the stairs of Hillman Library, then change direction and fly across Forbes Avenue, over the lawn of the Cathedral of Learning to the roof of Heinz Chapel in eight seconds, six seconds on a good day.

No, they’re not peregrine falcons: Kelley and Ellis create virtual environments that make viewers feel as though they can fly through the Pittsburgh campus and a variety of other places. The two men have designed virtual models of the Pitt campus, the upcoming NanoScale Fabrication and Characterization Facility, the Allegheny County Courthouse and more at the Visual Information Systems Center (VISC) in the School of Information Sciences (SIS).

Often found hovering over a computer screen in the seventh floor VISC lab, Kelley, a project supervisor, and Ellis, a project leader, create computer program modifications that drive virtual reality models as well as interactive web sites and computer systems for the University, local, state and federal governments as well as private companies. The VISC staff includes director Ken Sochats, Brandon Povich, Matt Nicol and Lyle Seethaler.

VISC manages and analyzes data in computer-based systems and presents information in visually informative ways for clients including the FBI and the Greater Pittsburgh Airport Authority.

Stoked with high-test coffee and Dr. Pepper, Ellis and Kelley are prepared for busy days that might include tasks such as examining and creating computer language and structure for programs that better identify students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools or show what a new microscope in the nanotechnology facility can do.

Although their duties as system programmers vary, recently the duo have been busy outfitting the Virtual Theatre in SIS with five high-end graphics computers — bounty from a national contest. They took fifth place for virtual environments in the educational category of the “Make Something Unreal Contest” sponsored by NVIDIA, a company that creates advanced graphics processing technology, and Epic Games, a video game company.

Ellis and Kelley shared the honor with Jeffrey Jacobson, a SIS Ph.D. candidate who developed CaveUT, a software modification responsible for the ability to project 3-D-like displays in the Virtual Theatre.

The CaveUT software coupled with the design of the theatre — five computers, four walls and four projectors that display a seamless image across three walls — give an audience the sense of being immersed in whatever scene is projected in the room, hence the term “virtual environment.”

But when the lights are on and there are no images projected, the room, approximately 14 by 16 feet, appears ordinary, though with exceptionally clean, bright white walls. A television cart holds black lacquered and silver shells for the computers, which from a distance look like a stacked home stereo set-up. The projectors on the wall are inconspicuous.

When Ellis and Kelley turn on the computers and dim the lights, however, three of the four walls in the room are bathed in a continuous image such as a hallway in the Frick Fine Arts building. With the click of a computer key, viewers feel as though they are actually moving through a hallway, viewing pictures from “Taking Flight,” a exhibition of prints from John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.” The experience is replete with the sound effect of well-heeled shoes walking on a stone floor. VISC created this virtual tour for the University Library System to showcase its Audubon collection.

Among other virtual environment projects, Kelley and Ellis put together a Pittsburgh campus virtual program for the Alumni Association. They started with a virtual building frame. Even though it’s part of the computer software program, the virtual building frame functions much like the wooden frame of a house before the windows, insulation, wiring and siding are added.

But Ellis and Kelley can easily change the proportion of the virtual frame. For instance, when they built their Pittsburgh campus program, they made the frame for the Cathedral of Learning long and lean, while Hillman Library was short and not so lean.

To recreate the Pittsburgh campus in a virtual environment, Kelley used a campus map to determine the proportions of the buildings and their relation to one another. “The first four of my 10 days of the project, I figured out the angles of the buildings and scaling and took the digital photos,” Kelley said.

Then actual photos of the Cathedral of Learning and other buildings were added, padding the virtual frame with digital images. Kelley used more than 50 photos he took walking around campus.

Although, the Pittsburgh campus virtual environment is complete and was seen at Pitt’s homecoming, Ellis is trying to refine the trees on the Cathedral lawn. Currently, the virtual environment has the standard cartoon-like palm trees, part of the original software, which is used for video games.

“A tree on the Cathedral lawn, if done correctly, is time consuming and I could spend at least an entire day just working on one tree — and that doesn’t include color,” Ellis said. (Creating realistic impressions of Pitt buildings, which are simple geometric shapes, was much simpler.) “It’s a complex task, there are a lot of angles and different pieces you have to put together to make the tree look real.”

As both men continue to refine or create new virtual environments, they expect to see more of the technology in everyday life.

“Think about going to the mall,” Ellis said, “and instead of looking at a map of where the stores are, you could be in a kiosk, looking at a multi-dimensional model of the mall that can visually guide you.”

—Mary Ann Thomas

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