A new Internet2-driven distance research and learning facility at Hunter College's Center for the Study of Gene Structure & Function in New York City offers students, professors, and research partners the ability to collaborate in real-time experiments with outside educational and research labs via high-performance videoconferencing.
Dr. Robert Dottin, Ph.D., director of the Gene Center, has been the primary leader in securing funding and support to bring this new facility online, and in ensuring that the work done there will have lasting impact both inside and outside the Hunter community.
Once the National Institute of Health's National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) had funded the project, Dottin began assembling the design and technical team that could build the research facility he envisioned. "I wanted to create a facility in which we could share experimental observations in real time with research groups in other locations, as well as benefit from experiments elsewhere that use complex equipment that no one university can afford," says Dottin.
"Because Internet2 gives us the bandwidth to communicate and share data at such high speeds, these real-time experiments are now possible." The project began back in early 2006, as Hunter's president Jennifer Raab provided 1,100 square feet of available space at Hunter's main campus, located at Park Avenue and 69th Street in Manhattan. Dottin and Hunter College's Internet2 facility manager, Carlos Lijeron, met with designer/acousticians Walters Storyk Design Group (WSDG) to plan the transformation of the raw, gutted third-floor space.
Positioned above a bustling city street, this facility would need sound proofing and acoustics treatment, design elements with which the WSDG team - led by architect/acoustician John Storyk - has extensive experience.
"The Gene Center wanted the main room to work in multiple configurations," recalls Storyk, "It needed to function as a traditional classroom, with tables facing forward and power at every location for laptops, as well as in a squared-off circle for a seminar or conference format. We designed it for the most advanced use, drawing from our experience in developing critical listening and viewing environments for professional broadcast, performance, and recording studios."
The acoustical issues in the room were twofold, Storyk explains. "First, to isolate the room from street noise," he notes, "and second, to make it an ideal environment for speech intelligibility.
We went with a floating room-withinroom design to achieve isolation from the street noise. We used a combination of absorptive and diffusive acoustical treatments to handle mid-frequency reverberation and some low-frequency issues. Not only does the speaker [talker] need to be heard accurately within this facility, but we also had to make sure the room wouldn't sound like an echo chamber on the receiving end in a videoconference presentation."
The facility incorporates a main presentation room, a secondary, smaller meeting room, and central machine room, which can double as a control room for the most advanced applications.
WSDG designed and wired the room for full-function computer, phone, Gigabit connectivity, ISDN, and audio and video connectivity, while North Haven, CT-based HB Communications handled the AV system design and installation. Lijeron, who was appointed facility manager, had no prior AV experience. "I am an IT specialist, but I had very little experience with AV connectivity," he shares. "We relied on HB Communications to setup the equipment and hardware, and then over the following year, I became a Tandbergcertified technical associate."
At the heart of this AV installation is the Crestron AV2 system, controlled by a TPS-5000 touchpanel from the lectern, or by another operator on the web browser-based Crestron X-Panel.
The AV2 controls the main room's Mitsubishi XL- 25U LCD data projector, which projects onto a 60- by 80 inch Stewart Filmscreen screen, the 42- inch Sony PFM-42X1/B plasma display in the back of the room, the Tandberg 3000 MXP videoconferencing codec, Tandberg Wave 2 camera and CameraMan 3e tracking camera, Extron MAV series and Crosspoint matrix switchers, which handle video and computer source switching, and ClearOne XAP audio matrixes with distributed echo and noise cancellation.
According to Darren Clark of HB Communications, "The room has a series of floor boxes with connectivity for computers - laptop video with audio - or for a portable document camera that can capture a live image and project it. The floor boxes are connected to the custom-built tables that can be moved around the lectern, so the layout is reconfigurable." The audio system consists of portable microphones that can also be connected into the floor boxes and a Shure SLX4 wireless microphone system at the lectern, playing through Sonance S623T speakers built into the front wall, and two JBL Control 25 loudspeakers installed in the ceiling.
The smaller meeting room has basic local presentation capabilities, equipped with another Mitsubishi XL25U projector, a Draper front screen, a Sony XRP-X 700P all-in-one digital powered mixer/switcher, and Sonance ceiling loudspeakers. This secondary room, says Clark, also provides space for overflow off the main room. "An input plate connects computers and portable video equipment, and tie-lines allow one-way overflow to the room from the matrixes in the main facility," Clark describes. "In this way, it is possible to send the feed from a lecture in a remote location or from one of the cameras in the main room to the second smaller room for viewing."
As Dottin explains, "First, we transmitted collaborative experiments from the lab within the building to the Internet2 facility. Later, we used the highspeed Internet connection to transfer this bandwidth-intensive data from the microscope to the conference room and to manipulate the microscope remotely.
Now, we can do real-time observations with a colleague at The Rockefeller University, here in New York City, where we've observed the microscope images being captured there in real time, from the facility here at Hunter."
The potential of this research facility will be fully realized when it routinely conducts videoconferenced collaborative experiments with other Internet2-participating institutions.
Lijeron points out, "The process of becoming a certified Internet2 site and a member of the Internet2 Commons Group for videoconferencing required my certification as a 'site coordinator,' which I have recently accomplished, as well as a determination - based on the equipment in the facility - that this is a site capable of distributing and receiving data rapidly and reliably from other Internet2 sites."
Though the Gene Center's Internet2 facility only officially opened in January 2008, its users already have some upgrades in mind, including the addition of high-definition cameras and displays capable of viewing cell structures in more detail.
Janice Brown is a Brooklyn, NY-based freelance writer specializing in music and sound technology. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.