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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

Welcome to the Wonder Years at Calit2
By Stephanie Sides

 
     


Photography by Philip Prittermann

The future is coming. But Calit2 is giving us glimpses of it today. Some two thousand people have experienced Calit2’s visionary new facility since last fall, witnessing at first hand some of the unique facilities that support cutting-edge research projects, ranging from nanotechnology to the newest forms of media art. And they came away wowed.

Almost a month before the building’s dedication in October 2005, Calit2 unveiled the only super high-definition capability in the U.S., linked over the highest-performance international optical networks with similar capabilities 9,000 miles away. The combined capabilities enabled real-time “conversations” between San Diego and Tokyo without any noticeable delay, and were shown at a resolution of 4096 x 2160 pixels—four times the resolution of high-definition television. Viewers remarked that the effect was so lifelike, it was as if the Japanese were physically in the Calit2 theater.
According to Calit2 director Larry Smarr, “This is something qualitatively different than videoteleconferencing—it’s a new state of physical/cyber interaction that’s broadening the horizons of what we imagine to be possible for research, education and entertainment.”

Dubbed the “Woodstock of Networking,” iGrid attracted more than 500 of the world’s networking and applications experts from 25 countries across Europe, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, North and South America and the Pacific Rim, and encouraged them to push the state of the art in international optical networking with their data, computational and visualization needs. To make this possible, networking capacity coming into the campus doubled during the course of the weeklong event.

When the building was formally dedicated a month after iGrid, some 150 projects across 20 disciplines, ranging from bioengineering to wireless networks, were showcased. One especially topical project attracted intense interest. It showed imagery of the topography of the New Orleans area before and after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina last August. The images were shown on a 55-panel tiled display (11 displays wide by 5 displays tall) showing 100 million pixels of high-resolution detail.

Although the clarity of the imagery stunned many visitors, the scientific application is even more important than the spectacle: The display allows communications specialists to identify high-lying areas still above water where they could site wireless cell towers that support emergency response.

These visualization capabilities are among the facilities provided by a $100-million grant awarded to Calit2 when it was chosen as one of four institutes, all partnerships of multiple UC campuses, through the California Institutes for Science and Innovation initiative, launched in 2000. This initiative was motivated by a growing concern that California could no longer depend on an unchallenged edge in innovation. According to the initiative’s final call for proposals, it sought to create “world-class centers for scientific discovery that fuel innovation.” And innovation is the key to economic competitiveness.

According to Calit2’s philosophy, innovation and competitiveness are closely linked to advances in telecommunications and information technologies. The State of California is most interested in technologies that can address problems in the economy and quality of life, including environmental pollution, water shortages, inadequate health care, the loss of lives and property in natural and man-made disasters and the crush of automobile traffic.

Calit2, a partnership between UC San Diego and UC Irvine, believes innovation is most likely to take place in facilities that provide not only new technical capabilities but that encourage new ways of working together. To that end, the institute worked with the architect, NBBJ in San Francisco, to formulate new design principles that promote collaboration in the physical environment.

Consequently, the UCSD building consists of unique technical capabilities that were designed to be shared. It includes a clean room for nanofabrication; immersive virtual-reality facilities; a digital theater for new media arts research, performance, and scientific visualization; test and measurement labs for circuit design; and transmission and networking testbeds, including a rooftop “antenna garden” to support communication experiments.

These capabilities are complemented by a mostly open floor plan, to encourage information sharing and casual interaction among faculty and students across more than two dozen departments. Industrial and community partners, academic professionals, and even high school students form part of this mix. Some 900 people, 75 percent of whom are students, took up residence last fall.

“We’ve taken the road less traveled,” says Calit2’s UCSD division director Ramesh Rao. “The building juxtaposes people and programs in uncommon proximity, to maximize the opportunity for experts from different disciplines to work together.”

Taking this egalitarian philosophy one step further, the building was designed to have no corner offices so as to minimize any perception of traditional organizational hierarchy.

Calit2’s building is bandwidth central, boasting 1.6 million feet (roughly 360 miles) of Ethernet cable. The relatively few closed-door offices sport 12 Ethernet ports that support any combination of computers and printers.

Innovation in design even extends to the furniture chosen: The tables and chairs are easily reconfigured in height and in combination with other pieces, and they come on wheels for maximum mobility.

The building’s design and its sociological organization help support the development of unusual partnerships and collaborations to address large-scale, multidisciplinary problems. More fundamentally, though, they point the way to a reinvention of collaborative research environments.
What will the researchers do with Calit2’s unusual capabilities? In the end, Calit2 is not about achieving a premeditated product or outcome. It is more about invigorating the process to stimulate creativity. Calit2 believes that’s how true innovation occurs.

“We think of this as a grand experiment,” says Smarr. “If we knew where this was going, we’d have no need to try it out. All I can say is: Stay tuned.”

Stephanie Sides is Director of Communications at Calit2

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California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology
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"Calit2 is the abbreviation
for the Californian Institute of Telecommuni-
cations and Information Technology.The
double use of
Iand T resulted in the catchy nomenclature. "