Nov. 8-21, 2002
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Computer classes buck trend
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Tackling cells’ mysteries
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Virtual mind
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Ashbery reads Nov. 21
Anthropologist Maurice Godelier to give lectures
Artists show “Wizdumb”
Focus on budget crisis
Virtual mind
Specialist turns imagination into images
Will Rourk, a visualization specialist in the Digital Media Lab, helps faculty members bring complex, academic concepts to life.
Photo by Jenny Gerow
Will Rourk, a visualization specialist in the Digital Media Lab, helps faculty members bring complex, academic concepts to life.

By Fariss Samarrai

Picture this — the swirling form of the Milky Way galaxy.

Cells dividing — one to two, two to four, four to eight — in amazing exponential growth.

Strands of DNA unraveling to show their ladder-like structure.

If you can imagine these, you’ve probably seen it in animation, on television shows like NOVA. You’ve seen these things virtually because they are almost impossible to see in reality.

Enter the visualization specialists. They are the behind-the-scenes computer graphics masters who bring complex and magnificent objects to life, whether as distant as the stars or as basic as the atom, on video or CD-ROM, on the Internet and in the “pages” of electronic books.

Meet Will Rourk, a U.Va. visualization specialist in the Digital Media Lab in Clemons Library. He makes his living by bringing complex concepts to life for faculty, staff and students. And he teaches others to do this, too.

“I can make objects rotate, I can give you a view at every angle, as if you are moving around the object.”

Will Rourk
visualization specialist

“I’m not scientifically inclined, but if somebody explains a concept to me, I can usually come up with a graphic to illustrate it,” Rourk said.

Such as showing how chemical reactions occur, or how galaxies form, or even providing a digital tour of a museum.

“We start with diagrams, pictures in a book or sketches in a notebook, and we build from there. This red ball comes over here, that blue ball moves over there. It’s like holding molecules in my hand,” he said.

Rourk begins by sitting down with a client, a faculty member or student, and discussing what they want to demonstrate graphically. He uses an assortment of computer graphics programs such as Flash, and the 3D-animation tools formZ and VRML.

Rourk and his clients work together, often through a series of meetings, to boil down the complexities of a concept to simple-yet-accurate graphic representations. A picture tells 10,000 words. Rourk’s favorites are in 3D.

“I can make objects rotate, I can give you a view at every angle, as if you are moving around the object.”

Rourk has worked closely with about 30 clients over the past few years in the sciences and humanities. He has created a virtual tour of Buddhist monasteries for religious studies professor David Germano’s Tibet project. He created an on-line art exhibit for the U.Va. Art Museum, and he has recreated the Milky Way and the workings of chemical compounds.

“Will created for me a 3D movie of the time sequence of the forming of the Milky Way,” said astronomer Steve Majewski. “I use it in public lectures, and it really pulls in the audience.”

The Digital Media Lab is a service of the library’s Robertson Media Center and the Office of Information Technology and Communication. Three professional staff members and six student consultants help faculty, staff and students with a variety of computer and video services, from digital imagery and audio editing to the building of media databases and Web site construction.

Depending on the nature of a project, the lab may provide complete product development, or, as in most cases, technical tutoring and short courses to clients who will then use the knowledge to create and customize their own projects. “We work on the principal of teaching a person to fish rather than just giving them a fish,” said Michael Tuite, director of the lab.

Rourk learned the basics of his magic as an architecture student at Virginia Tech in the early ’90s. He used computer programs to design buildings, rooms, landscapes. Along the way, he realized he enjoyed manipulating graphics programs more than designing buildings. After college he worked as a carpenter while deciding what to do. He eventually found a part-time job at U.Va. in the Digital Media Lab, which led to his present work in visualization for virtually any subject.

“I’m an educator,” he said. “I teach people to use this software, and my images are in turn used to teach.”

Chemistry professor Charlie Grisham uses 3D movies created by Rourk to depict chemical reactions — molecules locking and unlocking to form new compounds.

“Will is very much a colleague,” Grisham said. “He shares the fun of discovery. He’s curious and motivated. He works hard to make his images lifelike and accurate. This technology is a big leap forward for classroom instruction.”

Whether subjects are as magnificent as the Milky Way or fundamental as the atom.


© Copyright 2002 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

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