Virtual & Immersive Learning
The Animated Library
- By Jim Brewer, Donald H Dyal, Robert Sweet
From the team behind the Texas Tech University Libraries' groundbreaking 3D Animation Lab: A 21st century model for your campus's own 3D learning initiative.
IN HIS CLASSIC FABLE, Flatland, the forward-thinking 19th century cleric Edwin A. Abbott wrote of a two-dimensional world thrust against the possibility of a three-dimensional (3D) experience. Like the yet-to-come work of Albert Einstein, Flatland set forth a new theory of relativity that redefined the frame of reference of perceptions. No wonder Abbott's book has been wildly popular for the 150-plus years since it was published.
Yet though the concept of three dimensions has been with us forever, only recently have we developed the capacity to create inexpensively, with regularity and clarity, 3D representations and views, and even 3D animation. And while in order to bring the perspective of the third dimension into service each generation must rediscover for itself the value of a set of tools that enable 3D animation (recall the 1950s' and '60s' 3D movieviewing eyeglasses!), it is interesting to note that today's 3D animation is a frontier virtually unexplored by college and university libraries.
That is, until now.
The Library at the Crossroads
Libraries have always been poised at the crossroads of access tools and content. Librarians, their personnel, and supporters have worked for generations to create the tools to store and utilize content for the benefit of patrons. Libraries house materials and the tools to unlock them; their staffers teach patrons to use the materials and associated tools.
So why not 3D tools and materials? After all, animation and 3D representations are just another form of content, interestingly blended with enabling tools. For teaching, for scientific illustration, and for entertainment, 3D and animation are here to stay; what has changed is the manner in which these types of content are developed and utilized.
In fact, existing and emerging 3D animation technologies such as interactive 3D games, virtual reality spaces, and interactive 3D textbooks permeate our culture and the dynamic worlds of education, work, and entertainment. Simply put, these technologies better convey many kinds of information and content than does traditional use of photography, or textbook discussions. What's more, people like them and use them. Today, the internet thrives on such technologies, and an entire generation of young people considers such tools an intrinsic part of its world. For this new generation, as well as for increasing numbers of older users, these technologies are exciting, engaging, entertaining, and productive-- and, more and more, they are a part of everyday life.
THE 3D ANIMATION LAB at Texas Tech University Libraries brings together diverse 3D software apps, hundreds of tutorials, and other instructional materials covering nearly all aspects of 3D.
What does 3D achieve? An unparalleled view of an everyday object. For example, a 3D computer model of a historic building immerses its viewers inside the building structure, allowing anyone to "walk" through it in a browser; step around all sides of it; or view the rest of the world from inside the edifice, looking out. Photographs, of course, convey how something looks. But a 3D model adds dimensional context: revealing an object from all sides, then in low light, then in bright light, and so on. With the appropriate computer tools, a user can even experience a structure not yet erected, or one long gone. Today, photographs of historic buildings, along with known facts and scientific data, can be rendered in 3D animation to reverse the sands of time and bring the structures back, just as they appeared when they were first constructed. For instance, in an attempt to resolve age-old questions and help eliminate speculation, "digital 3D Stonehenge" reconstruction was recently just so devised.
New 3D frontiers for all. In fact, the constantly shifting 3D landscape continues to generate new disciplines. Among these are the culturally omnipresent technologies of CGI (computer-generated imagery), SFX (an acronym for special effects), and the blending of film with animation. Rather than the exception, 3D modeling and programming in industry and science now represent the tools of choice for developing everything from toothbrushes to missile systems. 3D product models and animations sit in virtual catalogs such as the Agathon 3D Parts Catalog, or the soon-to-come virtual Sears shopping experience previewed here allowing potential buyers to spin a product around for a comprehensive view, or review the product in use in its ideal environment-- an environment the potential purchaser can even manipulate as needed.
And video and film editing, plus special-effects technologies, are now available to the average person, as are emerging 3D animation technologies, sometimes at no cost to those who wish to learn and dabble, or even use the tools professionally (check out Blender, DAZ Studio, or trueSpace).
3D skills development. Still, working with 3D models represents only one piece of the broad 3D animation skill set. The ability to produce models, create animations, and talk about things that do not yet exist except in the imagination of the inventor, also are skills vital to working with 3D. These skill sets include conceptual understanding of computer modeling, rendering, and animation, and an understanding of the "vocabulary of 3D," which includes abstractions such as how to imagine which 3D concepts best convey or represent an idea. All are essential elements of working with 3D software. An excellent example: A recent contest challenged physicists to produce a competitive two-minute animation explaining string theory (and its 11 dimensions, which no one has ever seen).
Where does the library fit into all of this? As an interdisciplinary service provider, the library provisions resources, teaches basic skills, and enables creative discovery, exploration, and innovative collaboration. Yet, today, in our fastpaced world, both the predictable and the unforeseen have dramatically changed the knowledge and understanding necessary for library success. Frankly, the voice of tomorrow is calling us, even if we don't hear it! Technological advances, cultural trends, and accommodating vast emerging economies force library professionals to challenge many of their assumptions.
The good news is that 3D and animation technologies, as basic tools, place knowledge searchers in a better position to explore the world around them and build upon existing knowledge. Particularly significant, the animation of processes allows the testing of ideas in real-world applications without the drama of real-world costs and realworld catastrophes.
The 3D and Animation Lab as Intermediary
The burgeoning world of 3D animation software confuses and frustrates novices and experts alike with incompatibilities as well as independence and specialization issues. There are no guides for this new world, no easy pathways across disciplines, and no organization to the collective chaos. The 3D Animation Lab at Texas Tech University Libraries, launched in May 2007, endeavors to address this.
Looking at the lab. The lab provides a robust environment with a broad range of diverse and relevant resources to enable unprecedented potential for varied and creative inquiry and collaboration. In one highly interdisciplinary environment, the lab brings together nearly four dozen diverse 3D software applications (see "3D Software Sampler"), hundreds of tutorials, and other instructional materials such as books and videos, covering nearly all aspects of 3D (and 2D, as well). The lab website provides guides written by library staff to explain key concepts and software tools, and other timely and vital resources to otherwise assist those venturing into this new world from any discipline, and for any reason that suits their desires and needs. The guides enable and empower these individuals to venture forth with confidence and support.
THE TTU LIBRARIES STAFF has designed sample artwork to demonstrate the potential of 3D software. This African okapi scene was created with Vue Infinite, plus purchased or free 3D models from the web.
Staff and innovative approaches. Setting up such a lab is challenging, however. It requires capable staff to select, install, maintain, and teach the tools in a networked environment. The TTU Libraries staff provided the library with obvious strategic advantage for building this new service. For example, the software vendors typically sell a single product for a single PC and a single user. Not surprisingly, purchasing negotiations became exercises in hair-pulling: In each case, we had to negotiate for affordable pricing to accommodate a new kind of software deployment and use. Marlin Studios, for example, typically did not sell its 3D models to computer labs, but worked with us to offer an affordable pricing structure that allowed all lab workstations access to the models. AsileFX created favorable pricing for training software so that additional seats in the 3D Animation Lab were billed at reduced prices. And with one model vendor, we discussed having student computer lab pricing; they had not offered education pricing before. The negotiation process was a somewhat long but definitely fruitful journey.
The staff supporting such a lab also assists new users as they encounter a nontraditional computing environment. Accessories such as drawing tablets are new to many. We offer both Apple Mac and Dell XPS workstations, providing uncommon options to accommodate preferences. Not all software is available for both the Mac and Windows machines, but we supply both, where possible. The lab provides 28 workstations in table clusters, with a total seating capacity of 45. The instructor's podium screen (the Dell Intelligent Classroom solution, installed by Mediatech on its podium) is viewable from anywhere in the room via opposite-end Dell projection screens. The lab is open from 7 am to 2 am most days, allowing even the most time-constrained and harried user flexibility to learn and work in his own way and on his own schedule.
Animation Lab Software
In addition to the products and vendors mentioned above, 3D (and 2D) software products in the lab include Autodesk's Maya, 3D Studio Max, AutoCAD suite, and VIZ; Caligari/ Microsoft's trueSpace, Smith Micro's Poser, Anime Studio, and Manga Studio; E-on Software's Vue Infinite; Right Hemisphere's Deep Exploration; Hash's Animation Master; Google's SketchUp; Blender; DAZ Productions' Carrara and DAZ Studio; EON Reality's EON Studio; Virtual Fashion; and Carnegie Mellon University's (PA) Alice. A number of other software tools are used with these products: CS3 from Adobe, Corel's Ulead Video Studio, Project Dogwaffle, and Artweaver.
More tools. Clearly, we wanted to provide our users (students, faculty and researchers) with the widest array of 3D tools, putting users in control of the leading industry products. But we also wanted to include 2D tools along with the 3D programs, since this area is growing rapidly as well. (Products such as Anime Studio and Manga Studio allow the creation of 2D cartoon animation, providing a simpler approach to concepts and requiring less computing power in order to produce a movie.)
3D Software Sampler
Depending upon educational program need, you may discover some nifty 3D applications and vendors here.
In addition, we purchased over 3,000 computer models (buildings, furniture, animals, plants, and people) to allow the beginner to work in 3D without having to learn basic modeling. And we added over 2,500 textures to create a rich "sandbox" in which "playing" and serious work could be managed with ease.
The short courses. In September 2008, after the staff surveyed the needs of the student population and completed thorough testing of the courses in alpha and beta stages, we inaugurated a short course program. Two professional animators and other staff teach the courses. A faculty advisory group serves as a listening post for trends on campus, and brings ideas about course content to our staff. Currently, all courses are beginner-level, in order to reach the widest audience. Ongoing assessment of the program will help us to gradually expand the short course offerings over time, to meet the needs of our users. Video capturing of the short courses will be made available on our website, to facilitate access by anyone at any time, as desired.
Still in the Planning Stages
It was only after a planning and training period of some 20 months, and with full support of the university administration, that the 3D Animation Lab opened in Spring 2007. Stirred by campus news coverage and local press attention, early visitors included students, staff and faculty, high school students attending advanced placement programs, researchers, law enforcement officers and members of the local district attorney's office (seeking to recreate crime scenes), and individuals from other colleges and universities who came to learn from our experience in setting up the lab. While many campuses offer and teach various aspects of 3D modeling and even animation, their programs ordinarily are closed to all but those registered. The novelty of an open-access 3D animation lab in the Texas Tech University Libraries has attracted tremendous response, and the website for the lab quickly became the second most visited URL on campus.
Contests, workshops, and more. Still, we're not done yet; many new concepts are in the works for coming months. The 3D Animation Lab website currently contains examples of only staff works; we anticipate adding examples of the work of our patrons-- students, faculty, and researchers. And we will soon be sponsoring local contests to stimulate creativity and learning with the 3D Animation Lab resources; patron 3D art exhibits will eventually adorn the walls of our animation area. Through such contest experiences, current lab users can encourage newcomers to investigate lab offerings and assist new users with challenges. The hope is that lab users will become an important part of growing the service virally and making it more accessible and usable.
In addition to short courses, we expect to develop more extensive rendering and modeling workshops as a support to campus use of 3D and animation technologies. We can offer insights from experience in such things as negotiating purchasing and support agreements with 3D and animation software vendors, keeping up-to-date on key issues in the 3D and animation industries, and planning a "render farm" (a group of computers that work together to create a finished video faster). All of this may help Texas Tech students as they move from college to careers, regardless of what those careers may be. Among other things, they may learn how to creatively meet yet unimagined challenges likely to take place in this fast-paced world.
Inspiring the unknown. Future chapters about learning 3D and animation are still to be written. What new concepts and creative endeavors will come from those who now have these techniques added to their skills? Some will move into more traditional areas of art, movie making, and 21st century graphics design. But others will carry their skills and creativity into professions where the technology is still relatively unknown. By presenting, through three-dimensional animation, ideas that have never seen a viewer's monitor or screen, they will be able to address levels of abstraction that today still make some disciplines difficult to access. The intellectual "knots" we now face in so many fields of our understanding will unravel when we move our understanding of them into the 3D world, and make use of these immersive technology tools to open up our understanding and involvement.
2006 Campus Technology Innovators: 3D
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