Visualization 2.0

Multi-touch visualization wall is the focal point of RENCI’s new Duke engagement center

What could be better than the world’s favorite smart phone?

Imagine this: an iPhone-like, touch-sensitive screen that allows users to interact with data through an almost endless array of touches and gestures and that displays information at six times the resolution of high definition on a screen about 1,500 times larger than an iPhone display.

Look no further than the Renaissance Computing Institute’s (RENCI) new engagement center at Duke University to find this state-of-the-art visualization technology. And while RENCI at Duke’s 13-foot by 5-foot multi-touch wall can’t fit neatly into a pocket, it has the potential to help researchers in science, engineering, the arts and humanities view and interact with data in ways never before possible.

The Duke-RENCI center opened in May in the Office of Information Technology Telecommunications Building, 390 Science Drive, suite 106 on the Duke’s West campus.  The center is the ninth location for RENCI, which also operates facilities at UNC Chapel Hill (two locations), NC State University (two locations), UNC Charlotte, East Carolina University, and UNC Asheville. RENCI’s flagship site is off campus in Chapel Hill.

The engagement center gives Duke faculty, staff and students access to RENCI resources, technical experts and collaborators, and the opportunity to participate in ongoing research projects with statewide and national scope. The multi-touch wall, powered by six HD projectors and a single computer that can run both Windows and Linux operating systems, is the key technology at the new engagement center. Designed and built by RENCI’s visualization and industrial design staff, the wall features two million, spatially dispersed touch points, making it one of the most sensitive touch displays ever built. The wall can be programmed to respond to just about any gesture that a user can think of, and many will be familiar to users of other touch-sensitive technologies such as the iPhone and other smart phones.

For example, spreading apart both index fingers zooms in on the data, and doing the opposite zooms out. Other gestures allow the user to rotate data, bring up menus or initiative collaborative sessions with users on one of the 19 other RENCI Virtual Organization (R-VO) nodes across North Carolina.

“This is the next phase in visualization that allows for more unlimited, more immediate interaction with data,” said Ray Idaszak, director of RENCI’s visualization and collaborative environments group. “The gestures are not predefined, so there are endless ways to represent data and interact with it. It is the closest we’ve come to interacting directly with virtual data.”

Touch technology is rapidly becoming a preferred way to interact with data, said Idaszak. In addition to university researchers, emergency responders can use touch-sensitive displays to manage resources during emergencies and city planners, emergency medical teams and others can use the displays as decision support tools. The National Science Foundation is funding the development of touch displays and Microsoft’s next version of the Windows operating system will incorporate native multi-touch capabilities, he said.

Gateway to all things RENCI
The Duke-RENCI center also includes the R-VO collaboration system, which allows users at Duke to conduct video conferences and share data and applications using tools such as iLinc, Vidyo and Access Grid. Already, the center has hosted a variety of meetings and a training program to introduce the Duke community to the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive and its uses.

“This center gives RENCI a physical presence at Duke and it is the Duke community’s gateway into RENCI’s resources, expertise and its multidisciplinary projects,” said Marilyn Lombardi, director of RENCI at Duke. “We look forward to helping Duke faculty use the multi-touch wall to visualize their data and get the answers they need more intuitively and more collaboratively. We also intend to involve Duke in ongoing RENCI projects and new projects that will benefit the university, the state of North Carolina and our nation.”

Upcoming events involving the Duke-RENCI center include:

  • RENCI Distinguished Lecture, featuring Kathy Kleiman, programmer, historian and producer of a documentary on the ENIAC programmers, the women who programmed the ENIAC machine during World War II. The lecture takes place beginning at 11:30 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 23, in the Von Canon Room at Bryan University Center. Lunch will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Register online at
  • Duke-RENCI Open House, 3 p.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14. Duke faculty, staff and students are invited to visit the new RENCI center, meet RENCI staff, and see the mutli-touch wall in action.

Contact the Duke-RENCI engagement center at 919-681-962. For directions to the center see

RENCI…Catalyst for Innovation
The Renaissance Computing Institute brings together teams of talented researchers, engineers, technologists and leaders in government, business, the arts and humanities to attack major research questions and community issues in ways that accelerate discovery and drive innovation. RENCI has nationally significant expertise and capabilities in high performance computing, visualization, collaborative tools, networking, device prototyping, and data systems as well as engagement sites across the state. Founded in 2004 as a major collaborative venture of Duke University, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the state of North Carolina, RENCI is a statewide virtual organization.  For more, see