The University Record, June 25, 1996

Media Union will be a key to state of Michigan's future

U-M chemical engineering lecturer John T. Bell demonstrated Vicher I---one of two virtual reality educational modules he has developed for engineering students---at an open house for the new Media Union on June 21. Using the head-mounted display an d virtual reality software, students can 'virtually' explore a chemical plant and watch reactions as they occur.

Photo by Bob Kalmbach


By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

Michigan Gov. John Engler and U-M President James J. Duderstadt joined hundreds of faculty, students and staff members on Friday to celebrate the official opening of the U-M's Media Union---one of several new buildings on North Campus and a stunning symbol of everything higher education could be in the 21st century.

Designed by William L. Demiene of the Detroit architectural firm Albert Kahn Associates, Inc., the $40 million, 250,000-square-foot Media Union houses digital libraries, visualization and virtual reality laboratories, multimedia training studios, video conference facilities, and digital sound/video performance and design studios---in addition to traditional library collections.

"Funded by the State of Michigan to serve the people of Michigan, this marvelous new facility is not only an electronic library of the future, it is Michigan's portal to the rest of the world," Duderstadt said. "It is destined to help create a new kind of university that breaks the constraints of academic disciplines, along with constraints of space and time."

"This building stands in testimony to our vision and confidence in future generations of scholars," said Engler. "Its unique combination of computer technology with the visual arts adds a world-class dimension to the university. Technology is the key to Michigan's future, and the U-M will lead the way."

After the brief dedication ceremony, guests were encouraged to explore the Media Union and see demonstrations of the sophisticated technology available to students in the new facility.

One demonstration was conducted by John T. Bell, a lecturer in chemical engineering who works with H. Scott Fogler, the Vennema Professor of Chemical Engineering, to develop educational modules based on virtual reality. Vicher I and Vicher II have already been field-tested on about 200 engineering undergraduates, Bell says.

Using Bell and Fogler's modules, students can "walk through" a virtual representation of a modern chemical plant, access color photographs of equipment in the plant, observe chemical and physical reactions as they take place, and safely experiment with control mechanisms for those reactions.

"Virtual Reality will never replace teachers or textbooks, but it is an important additional tool that can be very effective for students with visual or experiential learning styles, who often don't learn well from traditional instructional techniques based on lectures and written material," Bell said.

Drawing on the expertise and technology available in the Media Union's Virtual Reality Laboratory, Bell plans to continue developing VR educational modules as well as study possible applications for virtual reality in other areas of education and industry.

By combining the Art and Architecture and Engineering libraries, the Media Union will make it more convenient for students and scholars to find information on art, design and technology-related issues. The collection includes more than 600,000 volumes and one million technical reports, historical records of early engineering research, archival architectural materials and resources on intellectural property, including U.S. patents and trademarks.

According to Randall L. Frank, Media Union director of information technology, 500 computer workstations will be installed in the new building by September 1996 for use by students and faculty. Software will range from general office tools to Internet applications to advanced animation and visualization applications. Fully equipped PC-based and Macintosh-based training rooms are available on-site.

Additional information on the Media Union is available at its WorldWide Web site at http://www.ummu.umich.edu/. For more information on the virtual reality educational modules, access http://www.engin.umich.edu/labs/vrichel/.