Mantis team visits the University of Salford’s THINKlab research and collaboration facility to learn more about its role in supporting the University’s research aspirations
- Range of advanced AV, 3D, and visualisation technologies.
- 4.8m by 2.0m ultra-wide interactive and immersive (stereoscopic) display screen
- Server cluster built by OCF using IBM technology to support data simulation
- Optical tracking
- Multi-touch tables
As part of our ongoing training and development Martine and myself visited the THINKlab this week. The futuristic sounding [and looking] lab is based in the University of Salford’s School of Built Environment and is a high-tech research and collaboration environment. It was founded to support the interdisciplinary researchers at the University, academics and wider industry.
Terrence Fernando who runs the lab told us: “Historically universities focused on research around a single discipline. However, funding bodies now demand that universities better demonstrate the impact of research. As a result, we take a more holistic view, looking at a ‘whole problem’ and trying to build partnerships in terms of academic principles and with industry. We call this boundary crossing. The facility was launched five years ago to help interdisciplinary research.” In other words, involving more disciplines and industry with research ensures that it is relevant, has greater impact and is more likely to be funded.
It was an interesting discussion because it well and truly dispelled my own ignorance that universities ‘just’ teach. Terrence explained: “Most universities now exist to excel in teaching, research and academic enterprise activities. Interaction among these three areas creates an exciting learning environment for students, which exposes them to both real-world problems as well as state-of-the-art knowledge.”
Each academic discipline within each university is assessed for quality of research by HEFCE. This exercise used to be called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) but this has recently changed to Research Excellence Framework (REF). REF focuses on assessing three elements – research outputs, impact and environment. Each of these three elements will be assessed against appropriate criteria for excellence, and is rated by the expert panels on a five-point scale. Terrence told us: “Each school is judged against similar schools at other universities. Depending on the star awarded, the school will get money from the funding councils. Top-rated schools get a greater chunk of the money available. This exercise happens every 4-5 years.” The School of Built Environment at Salford has been rated 5-star twice. Naturally suppliers tend to tune into the 4-5 year cycle and time their sales pitches accordingly.
The THINKlab helps interdisciplinary research by creating an environment where conversations can take place. Firstly, it has a ‘space dimension’ that includes a debating chamber to share knowledge and challenge assumption. This is called the THINKpod. It also has break out rooms; and it makes use of texture and light to inspire people.
Second, it has a technology dimension [visual technology for bringing ideas to life, body-tracking and video conferencing] that supports discussions. Finally, it has a facilitation dimension that helps people come together, generate ideas, build teams and test and productise ideas before implementation.
The THINKlab has held 1400 events in the past three years. Given its location within the School of Built Environment it has hosted the obvious types: city councils, police, town planners, etc. In this scenario, users of the technology dimension might benefit from the collective 3D simulation of buildings or even entire cities; the space dimension enables them to debate and argue the benefits or otherwise of the development.
The THINKlab is also increasingly working with firms from the aerospace, space, media and engineering sectors. In the space industry, scientists can access data made available from European space projects and use the facilities at the THINKlab to help visualise and debate this data. For the media industry, it recently undertook a project with a very well known national broadcaster to help design and build an e-learning system for school children.
The technology to support the THINKlab users is impressive. Terrence is quick to point out that he has a server cluster, but not a supercomputer. A supercomputer isn’t necessary because researchers are not crunching data at the facility, but bringing their data to visualise only.
This was built a few years ago by OCF using IBM kit. It is based in a server room and helps to run simulations and other models being viewed by researchers.
The cameras can track hand, head, and body armour markers. The overall aim is to create a virtual ‘you’ on screen, which enables architects for example, to understand your movement around a room or house development.
Behind the screen sit two projectors each sending alternative images at high-speed – left image, right image, left image, right image, etc. With the aid of special glasses, the brain fuses the images together to create stereoscopic 3D image [of a building or house for example]. Again, this is a useful tool for built environment workers.
Although there are many VR facilities in UK, the THINKlab is unique because of the way it has been designed to bring technology, space and facilitation to support innovation.
A few countries are interested in establishing the THINKlab concept to support their regeneration activities as well research capabilities.
I suspect in a poor UK economy with funding being cut even for the very best universities, we are likely to see a greater focus on university research led activities which can drive investment from funding councils, charities and industry alike. Based on our visit, I’d say the THINKlab is superb facility to underpin the best interdisciplinary research being undertaken today.