ATEC Building Offers Bigger Frontier for Jonsson School Researchers

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Dr. Nicholas Gans (center), assistant professor of electrical engineering, and research assistant Jingfu Jin start one of their autonomous robots in the high bay room in the ATEC building. The nearly 1,300-square-foot room has 16-foot-high walls, enough space for a quadrotor robot to fly in Gans’ lab.

A walk through the ground floor of one of the newest lab and classroom buildings at UT Dallas — the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building — reveals technological innovations such as flying robots, autonomous vehicles and 3-D immersion rooms, along with visual art exhibits from students and alumni.

Nearly a dozen professors from the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science have offices, labs or both in the $60 million, 155,000-square-foot ATEC building, which was dedicated in 2013. The facility showcases the visual arts and is a highly adaptable technology hub for the Arts and Technologyprogram, which creates connections between science and engineering and the arts and humanities.

“The Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building provides another opportunity to expose students and visitors to the engineering and computer science fields,” said Dr. Mark W. Spong, dean of the Jonsson School and director of the Laboratory for Autonomous Robotics and Systems (LARS) housed in the building. “In addition to classrooms for game design, sound design, and drawing and painting art studios, there are areas for virtual reality, tele-immersion, and product design and manufacture — areas typically held in dedicated engineering and computer science space.”

Dr. Ryan McMahan (right), assistant professor of computer science, with Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, said he could not conduct his immersive virtual reality research on campus until the ATEC building opened.

Dr. Ryan McMahan (right), assistant professor of computer science, with Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, said he could not conduct his immersive virtual reality research on campus until the ATEC building opened.

The Sensing, Robotics, Vision, Control and Estimation Lab of Dr. Nicholas Gans, assistant professor of electrical engineering, is housed in the high bay room in the ATEC building. The nearly 1,300-square-foot room has 16-foot-high walls. To conduct research on vision-based estimation and control for robots and autonomous vehicles, he needs room for his quadrotor robot to fly and his autonomous vehicles to roam.

“There are only a few places on campus where we could safely conduct our research because we need rooms with ceilings above 12 feet,” he said.

Dr. Ryan McMahan, assistant professor of computer science, had a similar dilemma. His immersive virtual reality research uses advanced technology to track full-body movements in real time — and display stereoscopic images for the user’s perspective. The technology immerses people in 3-D worlds where they can train at a surgical table, or travel down a coal mine.

“Instead of controlling an avatar on a screen, it feels egocentric, as if you are actually there,” he said. “I require a lot of space to move around, so before this building opened up I was not able to conduct research.”

The motion capture room, where many of his Future Immersive Virtual Environment (FIVE) students work, has a tracking zone of 12 feet by 12 feet, which is enough for only one person at a time.

“We are working on proposals to double the area so that a person could be tracked immediately when they enter the motion capture room,” he said. “In the real world, there is more than one nurse at a surgical table, so our training modules would become more effective.”

McMahan’s 13 students in his FIVE lab have majors in computer science as well as in ATEC or Arts and Humanities, which houses the ATEC program. Lab members meet at least once a week.

“When I need a surgical room or other model, I ask an ATEC student because they have learned modeling and animation,” he said. “But if I need a new interactive technique such as the ability to climb a ladder, my computer science students are the ones who can develop the needed software or algorithm.”

Gans agrees that engineers working with artists can be mutually beneficial.

“If you look at any prototype versus a product on the market, there is a final design step that incorporates aesthetic issues,” he said. “Artists turn something that may be functional into something that is also appealing.”

Gans has research collaborations with Arts and Humanities faculty members and also has taught with ATEC professors in summer camps. Their robotic art camp was a creative way to teach robotics, motors, sensors and programming to an audience without prior experience.

Gans makes a point to leave the windows open in the robotics lab room, and passers-by have noticed the robotic arms and other sensors that line the walls.

“A 12-year-old kid was looking in our window for a while, so I went over there and talked to him and he asked me a lot of questions,” he said. “He ended up joining my robotics camps. In the engineering buildings, that never would have happened because he would have never seen inside our lab.”

Gans said students benefit from being in the building.

“The space is essential, and the facilities themselves are quite nice,” he said. “Sometimes I joke with my lab members that graduate students are supposed to be in a dungeon with no windows so you don’t know what time it is.”

Having engineers in the ATEC building also comes with practical benefits. During the building dedication, three Mylar balloons floated to the top of the building.

Gans’ quadrotor robots were used to retrieve them. Two of the balloons are still on display in his lab.

“There was no other way to get them down,” he said.