Making the 'Multimedia Future' a Reality: NSF Center Links Hollywood With Silicon Valley
Cutting edge projects in scientific inquiry leading to new interactive media
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In the next century, a personal computer could know from the inflection in your voice--or by a smile or frown--what you want it to do. Basic research in multimedia technology funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is moving us much closer to that reality.
At NSF's engineering research center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, a team of university researchers is investigating more natural ways to interact with computers than through a mouse or keyboard. The scientists have several partners in the effort, including the film and computer industries, along with federal, state, and local governments.
NSF has committed $12 million over the next five years to the Integrated Media Systems Center (IMSC) to overcome numerous engineering, technological, and even psychological barriers that currently prevent "blue sky" visions of multimedia computing from appearing on the nation's desktops.
The psychology of human-computer "interfaces" is just one thorny problem the center faces as researchers attempt to devise better ways to deliver sophisticated electronic presentations that combine text, still images, video, animation, and graphic elements to the desktop computer or the home.
As evidenced by much of the content available on the Internet's World Wide Web and in CD-ROM software, multimedia, although a powerful communications tool, still is in its infancy. Delivering large amounts of video and graphics in "real time," in other words, without lengthy delays in processing and transmission, is a complex problem.
But Deborah Crawford, of NSF's division of electrical and communications systems, notes that "we now are at a point in history when we really want to harness these capabilities to improve our quality of life. This center offers us a glimpse of our multimedia future."
During a recent media briefing at NSF's Arlington headquarters Chrysostomos L. Nikias, the associate dean of USC's engineering school and the center's director, discussed the multi-faceted technical problems the center hopes to solve. He pointed out, for example, that although it is relatively easy to search large amounts of computerized text to find key words, it is much more difficult to search a segment of digitized video for a single image. Storing and delivering video, each frame of which contains huge amounts of data, also is a tough technical challenge.
Yet breakthroughs in these areas could produce sweeping changes in fields as wide-ranging as medicine, film, manufacturing, and education. The center's research may one day make it possible for high-school students to conduct "virtual experiments" in chemistry or biology on home computers before coming to class. Or for film editors to combine hundreds of digitally stored sounds instantly on a movie soundtrack. Or for doctors to share three-dimensional data from distant operating rooms. Or even for aerospace workers to don special glasses that superimpose electronic blueprints or X-ray video on a aircraft body to guide them in assembly work.
Nikias added that it may take years of investigation to solve these problems, and that part of the work may not have an immediate commercial benefit. "Basic engineering research needs to be done in order to make all of these advances," he noted.
Editors: For more information about the center, see: http://imsc.usc.edu/IMSC's Partners and Collaborating Entities
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The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
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