From Sandbox to BookBot
When the cutting-edge James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University (NCSU) opened in January 2013, the media went mad for BookBot, the high-tech library’s robotic book retrieval system, which in less than five minutes can locate an item requested from the library’s 1.5 million–volume catalog, stored in 18,000 metal bins that use only one-ninth of the space of conventional shelving.
BookBot frees up a lot of space in the design of the library (which is larger than a football field) for features like a Visualization Lab, Game Lab, Maker space, large-scale displays, and 3-D printers and scanners. The school invested $9 million in these technologies at Hunt for collaboration and for creating and visualizing information and media.
These innovative features had an equally unique proving ground: the Technology Sandbox, a 1,700 square foot space on the NCSU campus where for two years Maurice York, head of IT for Hunt, and his 22-member team tested experimental and leading-edge technology with gaming and engineering students to learn how they’d interact with them and what it would take to support them. Without York—his “vision,” his “guidance,” his “pioneering collaboration,” says Kristin Antelman, NCSU director for the digital library—none of this would “have gotten out of the gate.”
Launched in 2010 with a $100,000 grant, the Tech Sandbox was equipped with a large-scale multitouch display wall, two multitouch tables, an interactive whiteboard, a collaborative high-resolution display wall, and an interactive gaming rig. The team created a mini–Game Lab to test high-res displays and interactive applications. They then converted an office in the old library into a “Mini Hunt”—a perfect miniature replica of the full-scale technology infrastructure of the Hunt Library, with computing, digital imaging, and “digital media backbone” technology funded by $300,000 in donations and equipment loans from tech companies Dell, Christie Digital, and Extron. Throughout the process, students helped with design, prototyping, and testing.
The result is a library that puts “the latest and most advanced technologies directly into the hands of students to give them unparalleled competitive advantage in their work,” says York. And NCSU faculty now have a display space to show research that includes large-scale data visualization, simulation, or interactive applications.
For York, who has been at Hunt since 2007, the project offered a once-in-a-career opportunity: “a chance to participate in the design of a signature, large-scale building project that had the simple but lofty goals of providing a technology incubator and innovation hub for the fourth-largest engineering school in the nation and creating the best learning and collaborative space in the country.”