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Jerry Wagner
Art meets technology in the Via Design Lab. Students are encouraged to use artistic and technological abilities to create software that results in a pleasant experience for the end user. Pictured is Jerry Wagner. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Art Meets Technology in PKI's Student Multimedia Lab

fall 2004

In the not-too-distant future, businesspeople around the world — no matter their language or physical limitations — will assess their on-the-job skills online. Liver transplant candidates may play a role in evaluating their eligibility. Fitness consumers could benefit from a three-dimensional stretching machine.

They're all ideas that can become a reality because of projects under development in the Via Design Lab at The Peter Kiewit Institute (PKI). Jerry Wagner, a professor and distinguished research fellow in the UNO College of Information Science and Technology at PKI, and six students founded the multimedia lab in June 2003. Their goal, Wagner says, is to create an environment where students can experience the design and development of interactive multimedia applications. Multimedia — also known as digital media or new media — is the most rapidly growing area in computer software applications today."We're encouraging a new breed of software developer and engineer here, a combination of artist and computer scientist." he says. "Our students are focused on creating software that's engaging and not frustrating so it makes a pleasant experience for the end user."

A Resource for Area Business

Not long after the lab began, the six student founders were recruited by Omaha-area businesses as interns. Today, the number of interns has grown, as well as the demand from area companies for Via Design students. Gallup University hired several students to help the company create interactive, e-learning modules for its StrengthFinder product so the modules could be deployed to more users. Gallup's online course offerings draw businesspeople from around the world and in other countries. To date, 80,000 people have participated in more than 120,000 classes offered in English and Spanish. "We wanted to redesign these courses so they would be more efficient to roll out in more languages," says Eileen Frost, project engineer for e-learning and Gallup Online. "We also needed the courses to be handicap accessible, where everything could be controlled via the computer keyboard." The Via Design students' familiarity with multimedia creation tools and languages has enabled Gallup to grow technologically and meet the demand for its products. Frost says she's been impressed by the caliber of the Via Design interns. "The students have been very professional and responsible," she notes. "The big advantage for us is that they arrived so well prepared that very little training was required to get them up and running and productive. They've been a great addition to our team."

Zach Zaiss, a senior computer science/math/psychology major, is one of the Gallup interns. He says the experience has shown him that "there's a way to take my knowledge and apply it in a real world setting."

Creating Tools to Inform and Educate

Senior computer science major A.J. Pierce learned the value of putting himself in the software user's place while creating new applications. When he and Wagner met with members of the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Lied Transplant Center team, he found himself thinking of ways to involve transplant candidates in the decision-making process. Pierce created a prototype program that asks users to evaluate themselves by several criteria, including having a support network, coping skills, ability to comply with the regimen and ability to care for themselves. The rating information would be reviewed by the patient's medical team and used in discussing the patient's eligibility for a transplant. Dr. Jim Sorrell, division director for university psychiatry at UNMC, says Pierce's out-of-box thinking highlights the importance of involving the patient in a life-or-death decision. "Evaluation of transplant candidates requires two-way communication," he says. "A.J. was able to take that idea and make it explicit. He found an innovative way to approach the situation."

Helping Move Ideas Forward

When local entrepreneur Doug Anders needed to develop a unique product idea, his friend, UNO Professor Steve Bullock, knew the Via Design Lab was the place to go. Anders, owner of Cybotic Health Technologies, had a patented concept for a robotic stretching machine — a flexibility device that takes the user through a set of carefully calibrated stretches based on their individual tolerances. "Our engineers were working on operational drawings," Anders says. "But I wanted a 3-D model that would show the robot's functionality and cosmetic appeal so that others could visualize how it works."

Lingyun (Liz) Zhu worked from a drawing Anders provided to create the three-dimensional computer model. Knowing he wanted to show movement, the senior Management Information Systems student relied on her own artistic skills and special 3-D modeling software to imagine and simulate what the machine would look like from all angles. The design provided Anders with a dynamic illustration to show others interested in his invention. Because of Zhu's work, he says, his company has partnered with KUKA Robotics, an entrepreneurial business housed at PKI's Scott Technology Transfer and Incubator Center. Anders will be working with KUKA to build a prototype of the machine — bringing his idea to fruition. "We're very happy with what Liz and the lab have provided," he says. "She's taken an idea and given us a real-life experience through animation that we are expanding on."

Wagner says the interest and support for what's happening in the Via Design Lab continues to grow in the business community. The lab has become such a sought-after resource that demand has overtaken the supply of students. To address the need, PKI has introduced special topics courses to rapidly educate more students so they can be involved at Via Design in the near future.


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fall 2004 > Art Meets Technology in PKI's Student Multimedia Lab