Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

A Trip to the HoloDeck

September 2007

By Mike Gould

As this is the special University of Michigan issue, I thought I would share with you some interesting experiences I had recently at a summer science camp sponsored by the UM School of Education, where I work as part-time photographer and mouse wrangler. This has relevance to the BizMo community in that technology developed at the UM has a tendency to show up in future business enterprises. You may recall that the hologram was developed right here in Ann Arbor, at a UM spin-off called ERIM.

This ties in neatly with my recent experience with a 3D imaging system I visited with the kids in camp: a possible precursor to a real live Star Trek virtual reality system. In short, the kids were exposed to some of the coolest hi-tech the University has to offer, technologies that are coming soon to a business near you. Or you may already be using them, and will be needing more technology workers in the coming years to run them.

As Michigan transitions from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy, kids like these will be the future wheels that will move the state forward.

Science!
But first, some background. The University of Michigan School of Education (SoE) sponsors a science camp every summer, bringing in students from the Ypsilanti school system. These were mostly middle schoolers, and a very diverse bunch they were: all ethnicities, boys and girls, all smart as a whip. This year's camp was a 2-week experience dedicated to nanotechnology. The students explored the concept of scale: learning about the small, the very small, and the you-can't-see-it-without-a-scanning-electron-microscope teensy weensy itsy bitsy.

The SoE is involved through hi-ce: the Center for Highly Interactive Classrooms, Curricula & Computing in Education (see website below). The center is "dedicated to educational reform through inquiry-based curricula, learner-centered technologies, comprehensive professional development, and administrative and organizational models". Also involved is Project Hope, run by the Med Center, and an NSF grant in nanoscience.

The classes were held in the new Undergrad Science Building, next to the new Palmer Commons on Washtenaw. Here the kids had classes in the chemistry labs, used laptops to develop Wikis (online discussion sites) and wrote up their experiences in journals. Then there were the field trips to the Medical School, the College of Engineering clean room, the 3D imaging center in the Duderstadt Center on North Campus, and several other places.


Microscope lab One morning's trip was to the microscope lab at the Med Center. We all hiked over the Palmer Commons overpass to the lab, where the students were able to use powerful microscopes to look at a variety of materials, under a variety of magnifications. You really get a sense of scale when you can look at one of your hairs at 10X vs 100x magnification; at 10X it's a piece of string, at 100X it's an intricately-structured organic masterpiece.

CSI Ann Arbor
One afternoon a detective from the Ann Arbor Police Department gave a demonstration on techniques used to preserve finger and foot prints. This involves a microscopically-fine dust made up of powered iron and carbon particles. The kids stepped on a piece of paper, then pressed their fingers onto it. A light dusting of the fingerprint powder and the shoeprints and fingerprints were clearly seen. The detective told stories about recent crimes in Ann Arbor and how they were solved. I'm sure one or two of these kids are going to end up running a crime lab somewhere; I was thinking of switching careers myself - the lecture was that cool.

Wiki Wiki
The students had access to laptops for most of their classes. They created on-line journals and chat areas and wrote of their experiences, sharing them with their fellow students. Future web workers, all.

Clean Room
Then we all got on a UM bus and headed for North Campus, and a trip to the clean room. Remember those Intel ads a few years back that had the dancing workers in bunny suits? That was us. In order to visit the super-clean environs of the lab, we all had to don one-piece suits that prevent our bodies from polluting the air and every thing we touched, breathed or sneezed on. The lab is dedicated to making chips - those itty-bitty pieces of silicon and plastic that run our technology. The chips have features that are so small that a single skin cell could ruin their manufacture, hence the total encasement of us all in disposable cellulose. The lighting in the lab is an eerie yellow, as any stray bit of blue light could ruin the photo process used to "print" the circuits onto the chips.

The bunny-suited students (accompanied by their rather large bunny-suited photographer) got to create their own silicon chips, etching a design they created with a marker on a microscopically-thin gold substrate. The kids had a blast and I had a wonderful time in a totally unique photographic environment.

The Cave
The coolest trip of all was to the 3D imaging lab at the Duderstadt Center. One part of this is the fully immersive Virtual Reality CAVEŽ (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment). Here you and 4 or 5 fellow investigators step into a small (10' x 10' x 10') room and are completely surrounded by a stereoscopic view, in our case, of a heart and lungs. Their web site describes it thusly:

"Our CAVE uses three walls and the floor as projection screens. The projectors are located outside the CAVE. The users entering the CAVE wear lightweight LCD shutter glasses for stereoscopic viewing. The resulting effect is so compelling that, after a short while, the walls and corners of the CAVE are mentally blocked out by the human brain. The floor projection allows three-dimensional objects to appear inside the CAVE room, thereby, confronting the user in a convincing way."

I think I shot 50 Gigabytes worth of pictures in those weeks; one of the most inspiring assignments I've had. I envied those kids a lot; if I'd had an intro to technology like that when I was that young, I'd be Einstein by now. Or Captain Picard.

For more info, visit these sites:
http://www.soe.umich.edu/
http://hice.org/
http://www.med.umich.edu/medschool/diversity/hope.htm
http://www.dc.umich.edu/dmc/um3d/
http://um3d.dc.umich.edu/hardware/CAVE/

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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