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ORNL Develops Innovative Virtual Environment for Scientific Collaboration

May 1, 2013 | Telepresence Options

Innovative Virtual Environment

Story and Images by Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, the Department of Energy's first Innovation Hub, has enlisted top scientists and engineers from around the U.S. to improve the nuclear reactors that provide about 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

But the researchers don't all have to be in one place: CASL, which opened in 2011 and is based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), is using state-of-the-art telepresence and video communications technology to enable the scientists to collaborate over great distances.

"Breakthroughs and innovation occur when smart people are challenging one another face to face. It's that give and take, questioning and debating, that yields the best solutions in the shortest amount of time," said April Lewis, CASL's Collaboration and Ideation Officer and developer of the Virtual Office Community and Computing (VOCC) Laboratory. The VOCC Laboratory houses this unique technology and enables researchers to connect from remote sites.

In person, the VOCC features multiple small-group, digital collaboration work areas with laptop connections that enable shared information display on flat-panel screens, a multi-touch computer display and development environment, touch screen computers connected to high performance clusters and power walls supporting high resolution, 3D modeling and simulation -- and even a wall of whiteboards for brainstorming called the "Battlefield of Ideas."

The most creative solution to the collaboration challenge, however, lies in the VOCC's custom "telepresence rooms" -- small conference rooms equipped with systems of hidden cameras and transparent image planes that make researchers who are thousands of miles apart appear to be sitting just across the table -- and communicating with "true eye contact."

"About 70 percent of all communication is facial," said Lewis. CASL's systems, known as VOCC Edge Units, make traditional teleconferences look rough by comparison.

By combining uncannily realistic teleconferencing with data and simulations, the VOCC Laboratory lets researchers share and discuss essential information with key colleagues without the time and expense of travel.

"It substantially reduces collaboration costs over traditional technologies," Lewis said. "VOCC allows three or 300 people to meet, interact, and collaborate in a way that can only be enhanced through face-to-face meetings. VOCC gives me scalability with just the right amount of security. It's easy to use and more reliable than more conventional options. We wanted researchers to essentially 'plug and play' so they can focus on their research."

The CASL Hub has distributed various forms of this technology to all of its research partners. This technology is compatible with mobile devices like tablets and smart phones as well as fixed devices such as legacy conferencing systems, computer desktops, and high-end visualization rooms.

Digital Video Enterprise (DVE) telepresence and Vidyo helped develop the VOCC Edge Units. The VOCC Laboratory entered into a contractual research and non-disclosure agreements with DVE and Vidyo to custom configure the DVE Huddle 70 system with Vidyo's software technology.

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