North Carolina State University’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library

Challenge

Create the most technologically advanced research library for serving the N.C. State community and maintaining the school’s competitive advantage in recruiting students and faculty.

Solution

Provide a flexible infrastructure to support both the latest and future immersive technologies.

The Team

Customer: NCSU James B. Hunt Jr. Library
AV/IT Design: The Sextant Group
Architects: Snøhetta and Clark Nexsen
Integrator: AVI-SPL

You’d be hard-pressed to find another building in the U.S. with as many immersive video technologies spanning as many square feet of pixels as you’ll find at North Carolina State University’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library. The space is acoustically immersive, yet quiet at the same time; a research hub that facilitates innovation and learning. It set a precedent — and not without notice. In 2014, the Hunt Library won the prestigious Stanford Prize for Innovation in Research Libraries. When you see it, you know why.

The Hunt Library began to take shape nearly a decade before its opening in January 2013. The school wanted to inspire its learning community to collaborate, create and reflect through flexible, efficient spaces and immersive technology. N.C. State engaged architects from internationally-renowned Snøhetta and Clark Nexsen (then Pearce Brinkley Cease & Lee Architecture) to build a future-ready, experiential environment.

“A key part of the vision was to look at what areas of technology we could offer to the campus that would really provide resources across the board in an interdisciplinary fashion,” says Emily Lynema, Interim Department Head of Information Technology at the NCSU Libraries.

In 2009, technology consulting firm The Sextant Group joined the team of IT experts and architects to further refine the possibilities.

Design the Dream
Based on use case scenarios, the project team identified five areas of technology focus for the Hunt Library: Large-scale visualization and display; gaming, interactive computing, and programming; communications and collaboration; prototyping and creation; and research-community support.

“The library team already had names for the five rooms, and had in mind how they wanted to use each space,” says Paul Dooley RCDD, CTS, and Principal at The Sextant Group. “But what they didn’t know was what technologies were available to optimize their ability to do what they wanted.”

Adds Scott Frey, CTS-D, The Sextant Group Senior Systems Designer, “They pushed really hard for everything new and exciting that was on the market, and in fact some things that weren’t even on the market yet. They gave me the shell of the room and said, ‘Okay, what can we do here to make our dream happen?'”

Frey envisioned the various devices the systems would use and Dooley determined how much network support they’d require. Dooley worked with N.C. State’s networking group to design a flexible infrastructure that would support current AV equipment and technologies and at the same time serve as scaffolding for future upgrades. “More and more, everything AV touches the network, whether for communicating or managing content,” Dooley says.

They credit the building information modeling (BIM) software Revit for allowing the team to pass ideas back and forth quickly using a single set of drawings. “We have our own documentation style, where I can see what his devices are, and he can see mine,” Dooley says of Frey and himself. “So we can coordinate their locations and connectivity requirements from the structured cabling side.”

With the design in place, AV integrator AVI-SPL was brought in to implement the solution. Now well into its second year, the Hunt Library has been put through its paces and continues to evolve.

From Collaboration to Simulation to Quietude
The library’s Teaching and Visualization Lab and Creativity Studio offer similar AV experiences, with multiple projectors and theater lighting. The Teaching and Visualization Lab is an immersive “black-box” environment equipped with 270-degree stereoscopic projection. The Creativity Studio’s “white-box” space brims with possibility, from an open-ceiling grid, to movable white board panels on a ceiling-mounted track system, curtain panels, portable seating and flexible tables. Both spaces can be used for remote communication and collaboration with capture, streaming and broadcast capabilities.

When students from the graduate school go to the Hunt Library to work on their dissertations, they gather in the Creativity Studio. “The number of movable white walls in that room is extensive so they can break up into teams or go solo, and by the end of the day it looks like acres of writing on the walls,” says Josh Boyer, Head of User Experience for the Hunt Library. “They’re using the projectors as well. It’s a unique space for people to ‘ideate,’ work on research together and — for people writing dissertations together — to collaborate.”

Audio is a key component of the immersive experience. “I set up the Teaching and Visualization Lab and Creativity Studio spaces with a grid of audio,” Frey explains. “Every six feet or less, there is a speaker above your head.”

The Teaching and Visualization Lab also features 3D video, which the University has just begun utilizing over the past nine months. Lynema says a recent project combined 3D with the space’s immersive audio capabilities.

“One of our noteworthy projects from that space was the Virtual Paul’s Cross project, which recreated the visual and audio experience of John Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon delivered in the courtyard at London’s pre-fire St. Paul’s Cathedral on November 5th, 1622,” Lynema says.

In addition, faculty members of the university’s architecture department have used special software in the lab to display 3D designs.

Both the Teaching and Visualization Lab and the Creativity Studio lend themselves to simulated environments. “The Transportation Research Institute came in and created a video that allowed people to fly through a proposed highway interchange and look at it from different angles,” says Boyer.

In the Creativity Studio, the Navy ROTC meets every week to train on an interactive Naval Maritime Skills simulator — a real-time vessel simulator that recreates the experience of being on the bridge of any vessel in the U.S. Navy Fleet, at any port of call in the world.

Yet with all the AV, there are still quiet spaces in the Hunt Library. The Sextant Group designed the acoustics throughout the building. “You’ve got 20 or so group study rooms on a balcony, opening to the three-story, glass-walled atrium, and overlooking the quiet study area,” says Frey. “If you are down there, you can’t hear anything that’s going on up there.”

Unleash Imagination
Incorporating cutting-edge technology throughout the library is only one piece of the puzzle. The project team had to ensure students and faculty could realize the full potential of these high-tech spaces by making them usable.

Regulars at the Game Lab are especially adept at picking up devices and navigating their interfaces. In the Game Lab, a 20×5-foot, touch-enabled videowall composed of Christie MicroTiles supports scholarly study. The interactive wall features up to 40 touch points, making it the lab’s collaborative centerpiece. And when the Game Lab is not in use, it’s available to anyone who wants to take a break and have fun. An AMX Modero multitouch control panel allows users to select applications and configure content sources, such as the multiple gaming consoles.

Lynema says library staff can’t expect every user to configure the technology correctly, which is why they continue to offer support and education. “Right now we’re handling that,” she says. “We hope that in the future, people who have used the room more than once will be able to set up standard use cases themselves using the control panel.”

And demos are a great way to showcase the library’s technological capabilities, such as the library’s informal “Coffee & Viz” series.

“We invite faculty to give presentations on visualization topics that demonstrate how the spaces can be used,” says Mike Nutt, Director of Visualization Services. “We talk to collaborators and learn what some of their goals are and we go from there and help them imagine what they can do with these spaces.”

Digital Architecture
Yes, the Teaching and Visualization Lab, Creativity Studio and Game Lab were designed for research and collaboration (and fun), but they’re part of the physical experience, too.

“The library’ four videowalls are integrated into the architecture,” says Nutt. “I like to think of them as digital architecture. They’re flush with the walls of the library and become part of the aesthetic fabric of the building.”

As visitors walk into the library, they’re greeted by the Art Wall and the iPearl Immersion Theater, “They signal to visitors as they walk in that they are in a different kind of library,” says Nutt. “The content program for the public-facing videowalls is something we spent quite a bit of time on. It is something that every visitor to the library can see by design. It provides a certain wow factor.”

And it didn’t take long for users to start pushing the envelope.

“The College of Design did something called, ‘Improversion,'” says Boyer. “They were using every kind of technology. They were projecting on all the possible walls. They had whiteboards set up in hallways and tunnels. They Skyped through iPads and put it on big screens and brought in people who weren’t actually in the room.”

And then there was a student visualization contest called “Code Art,” which resulted in generative art for the library’s videowalls. “We had a couple meet-ups leading up to that contest,” Nutt says. “We invited students to talk about their ideas with people in other departments and other disciplines, to get that mix of computational and design thinking in the same room, and talk about what the possibilities were.”

Less than two years since its opening, the Hunt Library has realized its vision and is now being pushed further by the people it was designed for — its students, faculty and the N.C. State community. “They constantly said how they wanted this to be the best space in the world,” says The Sextant Group’s Dooley. “They got that.”

Technology Highlights

North Carolina State University’s James B. Hunt Library includes audiovisual systems from many different manufacturers, including but not limited to:

AMX (touch panels)
Biamp (audio distribution)
Christie Digital (displays)
Cisco Systems (digital media network and videoconferencing)
Extron (switches)
K-Array (speakers)
SMART (collaboration)

By Cindy Davis, Special to InfoComm International®