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Cyber-Commons: Merging Real and Virtual Worlds

As longtime Communications subscribers, as well as authors of articles and contributors to special sections, notably "Blueprint for the Future of High-Performance Computing" (November 1997) and "Blueprint for the Future of High-Performance Networking" (November 2003), we appreciate the opportunity to learn from and share with the ACM community. Over the next 50 years, as computing and networking technologies advance, we'll have to be able to harness the power of technology to address challenges involving biodiversity, the environment, medicine, energy, and more. That's why we're creating visualization and collaboration user interfaces to enable global virtual organizations to work together. Happy Birthday, CACM, and many more.

As educators, researchers, and specialists in networked visualization, virtual reality, and collaboration technologies, we are fortunate to work at an institution—the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago—with access to some of the most advanced "cyberinfrastructure" in the world. That term, coined by the National Science Foundation, refers to high-performance computing and communications environments that integrate data, computers, and people on a global scale in order to stimulate scientific exploration, theories, and knowledge.

Like most university educators today, the learning environments we provide must motivate our students to excel and prepare them to qualify for careers in the global work force. As technologists, we must harness the power of emerging technologies (such as petascale computing, exabyte data stores, and terabit networks). As researchers, we must create the virtual organizations, hardware, software, and human-interface models behind the cyberinfrastructure for data-intensive scientific research and collaboration.

For the past five years we have been part of the NSF-funded OptIPuter project [5], developing advanced cyberinfrastructure to enable scientists to interactively visualize, analyze, and correlate massive amounts of data from multiple storage sites connected through optical networks. One major result has been the OptIPortal, a 21st-century "personal computer" consisting of a tiled display wall connected to a computer cluster connected to multi-gigabit national and international networks. The OptIPortal runs the Scalable Adaptive Graphics Environment, software we've developed to serve as a cyber-mashup, enabling collaborators to simultaneously run applications on local or remote clusters. Discussing and analyzing the science behind the information being streamed, remote colleagues access and view multiple ultra-high-resolution visualizations, participate in high-definition videoconferencing calls, browse the Web, or show PowerPoint presentations.

The OptIPuter and its OptIPortals provide scientists and students better technologies in the laboratory and classroom than they might currently have at home. To make them useful and useable, we've created the Cyber-Commons, a community resource openly accessible to our faculty and students (see Figure 1).

David Gelernter, in his prescient 1992 book Mirror Worlds [3], wrote "A Mirror World is some huge institution's moving, true-to-life mirror image trapped inside a computer—where you can see and grasp it whole. The thick, dense, busy subworld that encompasses you is also, now, an object in your hands... This software technology, in combination with high-speed parallel computers and computer networks, makes it possible to envision enormous, intelligent information reservoirs linking libraries and databases across the country or the world... The Mirror World is a wholeness-enhancing instrument; it is the sort of instrument that modern life demands. It is an instrument that you (almost literally) look through, as through a telescope, to see and grasp the nature of the organizational world that surrounds you."

Cyber-Commons instantiates Mirror Worlds as the telescope one uses to view and collect data from global resources but goes further, bringing people together, possibly in real time, to enable collaboration. The goal is not just to mirror the "universe in a shoebox" [3] but to enable people worldwide to work together to create and learn from the world-in-a-box. Mirror Worlds went beyond the notion of virtual worlds, foreseeing the existence of advanced optical networks that allow us to share real spaces and real data. While virtual worlds, like Second Life, are useful within the context of cyberinfrastructure when avatar-based systems are needed to explore simulated worlds, Mirror Worlds described a much more substantial environment.

In 1992, our laboratory, under the direction of Tom DeFanti and Dan Sandin, developed the CAVE virtual-reality theater [2]. Also in 1992, we networked the CAVE to supercomputers. By 1995, the CAVE was networked to people at more than a dozen sites [4]. As pointed out in [1], "Today's virtual worlds contrast sharply with the concept of total immersive VR that has long been popular with science fiction writers but has proven so difficult for computer scientists to achieve in the real world. Second Life and World of Warcraft images are restricted to the screen of an ordinary computer monitor, rather than filling the walls of a VR cave or binocular head-mounted display. On the one hand, this may suggest that people really do not need visually perfect VR. On the other hand, today's virtual worlds may be preparing millions of people to demand full VR in the future."

The future Cyber-Commons will support continuous interaction, respond to human gesture, and encourage mobility among team members and information.

The future of real-time scientific research and collaboration is indeed in immersive environments. The requirements for a comprehensive global cyberinfrastructure are becoming more and more demanding as scientific research becomes more complex and as scientists need better collaboration and visualization technologies combined with the same digital conveniences they have at home. What domain scientists want is to interface with colleagues and data and easily mashup very large data sets in order to study and understand complex systems, from the micro to the macro scale, in space and time. To enable these cyber-mashups, the future Cyber-Commons must seamlessly integrate ultra-high-resolution 2D and autostereoscopic 3D display technologies, table displays, high-definition teleconferencing systems, laptops, and ubiquitous handheld devices, as well as support both collocated and distance knowledge discovery. The future Cyber-Commons (see Figure 2) will be a digital assistant of sorts, anticipating and enabling those who work within it, benefiting global scientific collaboratories and providing an opportunity for new computer science research.

The future Cyber-Commons will support continuous interaction, respond to human gesture, and encourage mobility among team members and information. It will connect distributed teams over high-speed networks and support persistent digital artifacts, so when the power is turned off, the information on the display walls will not be lost. It will enable the seamless viewing of ultra-high-resolution 2D images and 3D stereoscopic images without special glasses. It will also support ubiquitous and intuitive interaction devices, creating a powerful and easy-to-use information-rich environment for scientific discovery and education.

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1. Bainbridge, W. The scientific research potential of virtual worlds. Science 317 (July 27, 2007), 472–476.

2. Cruz-Neira, C., Sandin, D., DeFanti, T., Kenyon, R., and Hart, J. The CAVE: Audio-visual experience automatic virtual environment. Commun. ACM 35, 6 (June 1992), 65–72.

3. Gelernter, D. Mirror Worlds. Oxford University Press, 1992.

4. Leigh, J. and Johnson, A. Supporting transcontinental collaborative work in persistent virtual environments. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications 16, 4 (July 1996), 47–51.

5. Smarr, L., Chien, A., DeFanti, T., Leigh, J., and Papadopoulos, P. The OptIPuter. Commun. ACM 46, 11 (Nov. 2003), 58–67.

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Jason Leigh ( is Director of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory and an associate professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Maxine D. Brown ( is Associate Director of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation awards CNS-0420477, OCI-0441094, and OCI-0225642. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agencies and companies.

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F1Figure 1. Students and faculty gather in the Cyber-Commons for weekly technical meetings.

F2Figure 2. future Cyber-Commons environment.

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©2008 ACM  0001-0782/08/0100  $5.00

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