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UAF plans to close virtual-reality computer lab, citing funding issues

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Posted: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 3:41 am | Updated: 1:00 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — The University of Alaska Fairbanks plans to close its Discovery Lab, saying funding for the 3-D virtual-reality facility will be redirected to other computing projects on campus.

The lab, which the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center opened in 2003, has been home to a diverse range of research projects, performing arts events and public tours. Discovery Lab computers can display images on a three-piece wall-sized screen, which is tucked into a room behind the Rasmuson Library.

The lab is scheduled to close by May 1 to help offset rising costs in other areas of ARSC.

ARSC spokeswoman Debra Damron said the supercomputing center received a $6 million grant from the National Science foundation last fall that will pay for a new data-storage facility and additional supercomputer at UAF. But to staff that new hardware, she said ARSC either needed to boost its budget or redirect existing resources.

In the end, she said ARSC Director Frank Williams decided shutting down the Discovery Lab was the best option. The lab costs an estimated $250,000 per year to operate.

“It was really an assessment of priorities,” Damron said.

Damron said the lab was set up with a $1.7 million grant. Discovery Lab Manager Bob Huebert will spend the next few months trying to find ways to utilize much of the equipment at other UAF locations.

Huebert spent Tuesday giving a demonstration to a pair of visitors, including a 3-D peek at the surface of Mars and a virtual tour of early Fairbanks. The presentations have become a regular part of the Discovery Lab’s outreach program each summer, drawing many of the roughly 1,000 people who visited last year.

Other projects the Discovery Lab has hosted include modeling the underwater path of a tsunami and examining thawing patterns of cross-sections of Alaska permafrost. A Japanese-language class even used it once to take a tour of a typical home in Japan before going on an exchange trip.

But Damron said the Discovery Lab has been used less frequently for research purposes throughout the years. Its computer modeling abilities are increasingly available on standard computers.

“As desktop computers become more and more sophisticated, (they) can do more of this,” she said.

“I think most researchers, if they have the opportunity, would just do it locally.”

Local performing arts classes might be affected most by the closure. Experimental music and theater productions have been housed at the Discovery Lab, with artists from around the country able to collaborate on a single project.

When the play “The Sound of a Voice” was performed in the Discovery Lab in 2007, it fused actors, computer animation and live music from three locations.

Carrie Baker, an assistant professor for Theatre UAF, said the space wasn’t commonly used for performances but the innovative opportunities it offered will be missed.

“It allowed people to work on a national level and still be able to go home at night to our beds,” she said.

Jamie Smith, who teaches a beginning drawing class at UAF, said he’d take his students there each semester to do virtual drawings in the computerized 3-D landscape. He said the “world-class, one of a kind” facility was inspirational to the novice artists in the class.

“We’ve been drawing with pencil and papers, but look where it can finish, look where it can go,” he said.

Huebert said he’s hopeful some of those opportunities still will be available, possibly by adapting some of the technology at the Discovery Lab to venues like Schaible Auditorium or the UA Museum of the North.

ARSC will continue hosting weekly tours of the supercomputing facility in June.

The new location in the Butrovich Building will offer similar content but without some of the features available at the Discovery Lab, Damron said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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