The new George W. Donaghey Foundation Emerging Analytics Center is combining Big Data and 3D virtual reality.

Students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock could be attempting a complicated medical procedure. Or they could be touring a building they are designing. Or perhaps they’re watching a car accident play out in real time.

All of this is potentially taking place on the same floor of the university’s Engineering and Information Technology (EIT) building – and none of it is real.

The campus’s new George W. Donaghey Foundation Emerging Analytics Center is combining Big Data and 3D virtual reality in a $5 million project that the university and Arkansas hope can make sense of the monstrous amount of data at researchers’ fingertips, and attract more business to the state. The project was funded by the George W. Donaghey Foundation.

“The idea was to build a center that would truly allow you to take these large data sets that are available and convert them into a visualization that will allow you to understand what that data means,” said Mary L. Good, the center’s director.

Read more about analytics in higher education… 

New development could help colleges improve student retention

Big Data is the buzzy phrase used to describe the massive and exponentially growing volume of information constantly being created around the world. The data sets are so large and unwieldy that it’s impossible to process all of it, let alone make sense of that information, using traditional means.

Companies like IBM, with the creation of its supercomputer – and Jeopardy champ – Watson, have been investing millions in finding ways to harness and understand this vast amount of data, and many institutions are doing the same.

See Page 2 for how the university’s new center can help visualize all this data.

For universities, it could mean finding improved methods of learning and predicting student behavior. For businesses, it could mean better understanding trends and the market. For doctors and hospitals, quickly sorting through big data could lead to faster and more accurate diagnoses.

For the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, it may be about all of the above. But how exactly will the new Emerging Analytics Center help make sense of all that information?

Building upon earlier 3D data visualization systems the university had attempted, the new center is made up of 35 monitors and screens connected to the university’s computation research center. Users will be able use the screens to visualize the data they are studying.  The crown jewel of the project may be a room that the university calls “the cave.”

The system, which is technically called the EmergiFLEX and is produced by the Mechdyne Corporation, is a 10-foot-tall wall comprised of 24 screens that can be moved around to surround anyone using it. Underneath the user is a similar screen making up the floor. The images displayed on the screens become 3D when the user dons a pair of red glasses.

A smaller, mobile version of “the cave” is also available in the center.

“Whether it’s medicine or manufacturing or whatever it might be, there’s endless applications for this technology to be able to actually see what you’re going to be doing or how you’re going to be building something or conducting something or constructing something,” Arkansas governor Mike Beebe said during a press conference earlier this month. “It’s available in virtually every application. It’s mind boggling that the technology has gone that far.”

The equipment can be used for large, three-dimensional presentations, data research, product design reviews, and geophysical exploration. Students and researchers can use “the cave” to literally surround themselves with data, sifting through millions of tweets on Twitter, for example, and visually clustering them by topic. Arkansas companies can use the cave to show clients a 3D computer version of a product before it’s even built.

“The ‘cave’ is simply a totally immersive 3D environment,” Wood said. “It’s designed in such a way that you can essentially stand inside the data.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.