New U of A digital scholarship centre gives researchers the tech they need when they need it

Centre provides virtual reality room, high-performance computers, 3-D printing and more.

Virtual reality, visualization walls, and video games!

Cutting-edge technology more commonly seen in high-tech research labs or computing centres is not what you typically expect to see in a library, but that's exactly what you'll find in the University of Alberta Libraries' new Digital Scholarship Centre (DSC).

The first thing people notice when they walk into the DSC is the data visualization wall, the largest in Western Canada. The touch screen wall can be used for displaying large, complex data sets or detailed maps without having to continually zoom in and out.

Harvey Quamen, the DSC's academic director, said it's this wall that often draws people into the space on the second floor of the Cameron Library. It also houses a podcast recording booth, web-enabled rooms with cameras for hosting webinars, 3-D printers, laser cutters, a tabletop computer, a virtual reality room, 3-D scanners, high-performance computers and a number of collaborative working spaces.

The tabletop computer-a large, powerful touch screen positioned facing up-is a favourite of visitors to the DSC, said Quamen.

"In some ways, it's just a monitor lying on its side, but it completely changes your perspective, and it's amazing how much of a difference that actually makes. You don't realize the limits of something until you see an alternative. Its positioning invites you to move it, play with it and touch it," he explained.

At first glance, the high-performance computing cluster may not attract people the way the tabletop computer does, said Quamen, but it's a key feature of the new centre. The cluster, which features six Windows machines and two Macs, is intended for projects that need more computing power than a laptop or desktop but aren't quite at the level to use Compute Canada's big supercomputers, explained Quamen.

"The cluster provides that middle level of computing power for people in geography, for example, who are looking at really big maps that take a ton of memory and space, or for big data-mining projects," he said.

It's about people

Despite the 3-D fabrication tools and high-performance computers, it's not really about the technology, said Quamen-it's about the people who use the lab.

"It's about inspiration and ideas. It's about showing something to somebody. Maybe they've never played the sorts of games we have before. Maybe they've never tried VR before. It's a way for them to experiment with this sort of stuff," Quamen said.

The DSC's mandate is to serve the whole campus, so everybody is welcome to come in and use the space, which is designed for accessibility, Quamen said.

One of the most important things about running a centre like the DSC is staying ahead of the curve, he added.

"If someone comes to a centre like ours and says, 'I've got a grant' or, 'I want to do some 3-D printing' and we say, 'Never heard of it, I don't know what you're doing,' then we're way behind."

The DSC's librarians and experts work to forecast where research is going and pay attention to what people are interested in and what their curiosity is driving them to do, said Quamen.

"If we can see what those trends are, then we can start to put some technology and some training into place before they even get here."

Ultimately, they want students and researchers to visit the DSC and think about how they can use it in their own research.

"You want to get people into the space, you want to get them curious about something, you want to spark their imagination, you want to get them thinking about a research project that they wanted to do but never had the resources for," said Quamen.

"That's what the space is really about."