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Frank Jackson III and Annie Koval/MEDILL

Nearly boundless options in media that run on the SAGE wall, located at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory in Chicago. With 18 interconnected plasma screens at EVL, the wall invites conferences where people from around the world can interact with one another and share media simultaneously. Everyone sees the content on their own display walls. 

Cyberspace wall connects real-time global imaging, conferencing, data

by Frank Jackson III and Annie Koval
Feb 22, 2011


Annie Koval/Medill

SAGE – Scalable Adaptive Graphics Environment – links to a wall-sized tile display of screens that allow simultaneous users in global locations to share and manipulate interactive content and data. 

Graduate student Dennis Chau tries to remember the staid pace of weekly meetings at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory before cyberspace pioneers there developed an interactive software called SAGE.

“We were just mere mortals passing around slides,” Chau jokingly comments to other graduate students at the lab, located at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

SAGE is the heartbeat of a wall of interactive screens where people from around the world can simultaneously run and manipulate videos, images, charts and other applications. SAGE – Scalable Adaptive Graphics Environment – keeps it all humming. The program interconnects various users and wall displays in more than 50 global locations.

Researchers at EVL said this technology will revolutionize networked communication and visualizations in classrooms, business meetings and research around the world.

“Thirty to 40 percent of the brain uses visualization,” said Jason Leigh, director of EVL. “So saying that you don’t want to use this, is saying that you do not want to use about 40 percent of your brain.”

The idea, first presented in 2002, now focuses on making the software for the “everyday person,” said Ratko Jagodic, a PhD student in computer science at the lab and one of the lead developers of SAGE.

“The future vision is that there are walls everywhere,” he said. “This is a way to turn our paper world into a digital world.”

For example, a typical office meeting is led through one type of visual medium, such as PowerPoint, charts, websites or videos. If another colleague wants to provide further input, they would have to use their own their laptop and a separate document.

But thanks to SAGE, distant worlds – and data sets – come together.

The ability to involve experts from other locations – whether it be users at Louisiana State University or Kyoto University in Japan – increases productivity because they are able to effectively communicate and collaborate remotely, sharing multiple types of information simultaneously.

SAGE even proved to be a useful tool when the University of Illinois needed to find a new president. The university’s three campuses worked together and used SAGE for video conferences and to display information comparisons during the decision-making process.

More than 10 countries and 50 universities, laboratories and museums currently use SAGE, including the Adler Planetarium, Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University.

To truly benefit from the full scope of SAGE’s capabilities, users run the software from a computer that is linked to a tile-display screen. Students like Chau download a SAGE application on their laptop that connects them to the wall.

Then they simply drag what they would like to contribute from their laptop into the SAGE application, and it pops up instantly in a larger form on the wall. In EVL’s case, a majestic 20-foot wall comprised of 18 LCDs with borders a quarter-of-an-inch thick, making it appear as a single, seamless 20-megapixel display.

The SAGE application also provides each participant with a designated pointer, which they can use to navigate the wall and manipulate its contents. Stripping away the limits of one mouse is what allows many people from around the world to communicate and utilize this media at the same time, Jagodic said.

“We want to step away from the computer, the mouse and the keyboard,” he said.

Jagodic explained there are two other ways to interact on SAGE: a wireless mouse, called a Gyro mouse, for those not at their computers as well as a touchscreen for direct interaction on the wall.

Because tiled walls such as the one at EVL differ in size and definition, some screens take several computers to work. But being “scalable” and “adaptive” means that SAGE will run smoothly on other systems.

“The software is set up so that no matter how big your display, if it is high definition or not, or how many computers are backing the system, SAGE is adaptable,” Jagodic said. “This is the beauty of it -- it runs the same on a system using one, 50 or 100 computers.”

While the software has the basic functions of an operating system like Linux, its adaptability stems from it being an abstraction, meaning it is not bound by the rules of standard operating systems, Jagodic said.

“This software is not something that Mac and Windows can do,” he said.

The evolving technology and cheaper LCD displays means a wider audience can take advantage of the benefits that SAGE brings to traditional collaborative environments. When it comes to technology, Jagodic said people like using equipment they are familiar with.

“SAGE gives them the capability of what they are used to doing but in an enhanced way,” he said. 

View Sage around the world in a larger map