Ah, the college library: a place of studious reflection and solipsistic quietude—and these days, a whole lot more. On many campuses today, parts of the library have become centers of interactive, multimedia experiences. And perhaps no school has taken this aspect of the modern library further than Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Serving more than 100,000 students—some 12,000 on campus and more than 90,000 online—Liberty University has established itself as a leader in digital education. Their commitment to using technology to engage and connect with students is front and center in the university’s Jerry Falwell Library, a $50 million, state-of-the-art facility that opened to rave reviews in January 2014.
Upon entering the library, visitors are greeted by an enormous visual display—a media wall measuring 24 feet by 11 feet, composed of 198 interactive tiles that are controlled by three Kinect for Windows sensors. The wall displays animated visualizations of photos submitted, via social media, by Liberty students and staff. The sensors enable library visitors to use gestures to grab the photos and reveal details about what’s being depicted.
The media wall thus provides a current snapshot of life at Liberty University—not just on campus but around the world, since most of the school’s students are distance learners. Tim Siegel, systems librarian at Liberty, feels that the wall helps students realize they are part of a bigger picture by “showing the impact that Liberty is having.”
In order to meet the challenge of providing interaction across the entire width of the wall, Liberty teamed up with InfoStrat, a Kinect for Windows partner located in Washington, D.C., to develop the visualizations and create a custom service that enables the simultaneous use of multiple Kinect for Windows sensors. The sensors are critical to engaging students in this experience and demonstrating Liberty’s technical leadership. Marcy Pride, dean of the library, praises the Kinect feature for the way it draws students in, noting that it “positions us nicely as a twenty-first-century library that uses the technology to engage students, to allow them to have a sense of control, and to give them the opportunity to be creative and innovative.”
The Falwell Library installation isn’t the first university media wall, but it’s certainly one of the most technologically advanced. The staff surveyed other university installations but wanted to do something bigger and better. When they asked InfoStrat how to make a richer media wall experience, the obvious answer was to make it interactive with Kinect for Windows. The payoff was substantial, as Joshua Blake, technical director of InfoStrat’s Advanced Technology Group, describes. “When students first visit the library, they may not know that the video wall is interactive. As they walk through the space, or they see someone else interacting, it’s a bit of a surprise—this huge video wall responds to them, thanks to the Kinect sensors.”
As Blake explains, Kinect for Windows is the key to this interactive experience. The arrangement of the three sensors creates a continuous interactive space in front of the entire video wall. These sensors are connected to a single computer via USB extenders, and a Windows Service processes and combines the data from each sensor.
The media wall visualization is driven by a Unity application, which gets social media and configuration data from a custom web service on a server located elsewhere, and the Kinect interaction data from the local Windows Service through shared memory. The web server ingests the social media posts and images and hosts a management website that allows administrators to moderate posts and remotely configure what is displayed on media wall through the Unity application.
All that technical wizardry makes the media wall work seamlessly for the visitors who stand in front of it, excitedly waving their arms to move images around and gesturing to access additional information. In the process, they become more deeply connected to the university’s worldwide student body and its many outreach programs. Who knew that the library could be such a potent social force?
The Kinect for Windows Team