Another Awesome Day @ the Cube

Phew. Well, today freakin’ ruled!

Days like today are the best – those one of a million types that you look back on as you nestle into bed and think “dang…I wish they could all be like that.”

BEHOLD!! The Cube.

They’re the kind that make you really appreciate this ball of chaos on which we occupy. The ones that make you forget the stresses and obligations of daily living and instead let you focus on the good and the great. The stuff we should actually focus on – gnome saying?

Truthfully, this was something I’ve been looking forward to since my first visit several months ago (the recap of which can be found here: Pushing Boundaries: My Day at iCube). To spare you an unnecessarily verbose description of why I was so excited, I recommend you read that post. Basically I got to spend all day screwing around with super expensive virtual reality stuff, among other toys that any nerd would die to get their hands on. Read on for the deets of today (I’ll pause so you can get caught up on the aforementioned post).

The team at iCube most certainly inspire.

The main thing that made today so much better than my first visit was the added bonus of bringing a close friend, Johnny. Incidentally, now that I think about it, he’s someone that many of my readers are already e-acquainted with (I refer to none other than infamous Johnny the Slick-Handed). So to most accurately place you into my mindset, imagine the value of attending something, anything, with a good pal. It results in a profoundly different interaction – not only for the event itself, but when also considering the small things like the hour-long conversations both to and from said event. For lack of a better description, it simply elevates the entire experience. Couple this with the fact that our tour-guide was not only a friend, but one of the most down-to-Earth, smartest people I know (Mack Lunn) and that’s just a formula for…well, fun. Rhyme not intended.

The day began with an incredible bacon-burger-filled lunch at Spanky’s, a local joint located on the campus of TN Technological Institute in good ole Cookeville, TN. Johnny, Mack, and myself were joined by two painfully beautiful she-geniuses, Tara and Brooklyn – who, I should add, also work at iCube. Evidently the place excels at hiring super-intelligent, motivated human beings; something indicative of any organization which winds up being enormously successful.

Before I forget – and this has absolutely nothing to do with anything – one thing I’d be remiss not to mention that happened during lunch: the literal tear inducing moment of sharing a short video of a poor, trapped sheep being rescued only to be accidentally tossed down a mountain. You’re probably thinking that sounds sadistic and evil, but I assure you it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. After all, I’m like…90% sure…the sheep ended up just fine (stop and watch this video immediately). Again, totally irrelevant to this post, but something I found so funny that I simply had to sprinkle in here. Blame Johnny for showing it to me on the ride up.

It gets no more immersive than stepping into virtual reality.

Anyway! Let’s get back on point. More important than TumbleSheep, lunch produced some extremely stimulating conversation – not a surprise considering the company. My favorite thing about highly intellectual environments is the conversation, which always proves to be thought-provoking and relevant. Not to mention that Spanky’s is the absolute business if you want a decent burg in Cookeville.

After lunch, Mack led us back to iCube, where I wanted Johnny to try out the same stuff I got to enjoy during my first visit. So, armed with all things VR, Mack strapped him into an Oculus Rift and let him immerse himself in the digital, virtually realistic universe we’ve all read so much about. The post I referenced earlier alludes to much of these applications/games, but one thing I want to mention that most definitely separates today from last time: FREAKIN STAR WARS!!

Sorry, let me adjust myself before my visibly aroused scribbles create an awkward environment for us both.

Who, me?  Not much…just using my LIGHT SABER! Whatchu up to?

Yes, you read that correctly. They have finally developed a game that allows us lessor humans to step into the shoes of a real life, force-slinging, saber-wielding Jedi who can block FRICKIN’ LASER BEAMS. I kid you not. So Johnny, being the guinea pig of the day, was able to enjoy this as I sat there taking pictures for this very post – silently dying a little on the inside wishing this had come out when I was younger. Kids these days get to have all the fun, right? Whatever. They can take their iPads and their fake online girlfriends and…ahem. Moving on!

After awhile of fiddling with VR, we again (for me) stepped into the craaaazy-expensive “VisBox”, which is this huge platform/dark arena where you put on some goofy goggle and walk around in a real 3-D, immersive environment. My last post described an application catered towards hospitals, where diabetic patients can waltz around in their hearts/arteries, truly visualizing what’s going on in their bodies if they don’t follow the doc’s instructions. Again, Johnny was the “player”. We also showed him the other applications that the Vis Box offers, such as a super cool app where you can walk around the old Quake video game’s map. You know the one I’m talking about – that old FPS game where we all learned to shoot people. Not this sissy COD junk that the nerds of today are used to. In any case, I imagine the Vis Box is always one of iCube’s crown jewels that has a lot of impact and wow-value for the folks who aren’t familiar with their work.

Where the magic happens.

After the VB, Mack took us through the studio, showing us where the (seemingly literal) magic happens. Imagine a video game studio, but sprinkled with students, Oculus Rift headsets, and a bunch of dry-erase board with hieroglyphics…only the hieroglyphics are actually just stuff that English-speaking people who are smarter than me understand and not actually a foreign language.

If you understand this, stop reading this and go design some stuff.

Following the studio, the final part of our tour began, which was a quick look at the things they do in terms of 3D printing. This time, unlike my last, there was actually one printer that was actively printing something. This was really cool to see, since earlier I didn’t have the chance to see something manifest out of what seemed like thin air (these things are nuts if you haven’t watched videos or anything on them). In fact, the sheer thought of “printing” objects still sort of boggles my mind, but alas – that is literally the world we now live in. Get used to it, I suppose.

Since we mentioned light sabers and all…

All in all, I’ll wrap up with by reiterating how much I appreciate Mack and days like today. Many thanks to all the folks at iCube for creating such an inexplicably incredible venture that I eagerly hope to read about as time moves forward. I genuinely expect some revolutionary things coming from them and theirs in the future.

A future which, as iCube clearly indicates, is blindingly approaching with lightning-fast swiftness.

Thanks again Mack!!!! You da man.

For more information on iCube and the amazing work they do, please visit their website at http://www.ttuicube.com/

Mack Lunn: Full Interview

Since the paper limits the word count, here is a full in depth look into what Mr. Lunn is doing.

What is the core mission of iCube?

The iCube is a multidisciplinary learning environment that makes it possible for any of our students to extend their learning into avenues that interest them outside of the classroom. We encourage personal learning, and thereby the pursuit of personal projects. We have a unique setup that intertwines different majors into working together on projects, and provide the capabilities to make sure they are equipped and knowledgeable.

We’ve received tremendous support from the administration at TTU to make this a reality. They repeat a mantra of “Imagine, Inspire, Innovate” as the three pillars of the iCube.  We are most well-known for our ability to create high-level virtual reality simulations, websites, 3D Printed projects, applications, and campaigns, but we work on a vast variety of projects applying technology.

We continuously work to give back to the University itself and find ways to integrate our teachings into the classroom, wherever possible. We are a faction of the college of engineering and the college of business, but we have found ourselves deeply entwined in many other colleges on campus, specifically Education, Nursing, and athletics.

What is a general description of what you do?
In short, I provide opportunities to learn for the students at Tennessee Tech.

I am the Manager of Special Projects at the TTU iCube, which is a title that is just ambiguous enough to allow me the privilege of using the latest and greatest technology to solve problems. I work with a great team of iCube employees and an a multidisciplinary group of students with a high drive and interest for learning. My job is to find strategic projects that offer a unique opportunity for learning, put together teams to accomplish the goals of the project, perform any necessary training and provide leadership in getting things done, and go after grants and/or funding.

On any given day when I come into work, there are robots running around, drones flying, 3D printers humming creations into existence, students working in virtual reality headsets, and more. It’s a fast-paced, open environment that requires a lot of mental agility so as to maintain a competitive edge. Moreover, in addition to keeping a finger on the pulse of technology that exists, I closely examine what is needed. I listen closely to find out what it is that students want to learn, and then make a point to integrate that if at all possible.

 

mack2

Good with technology, but wait until you see the snowballs he can craft
What kind of projects do you work on that have societal benefits?
We have become lucky enough to be able to orient ourselves towards projects that serve a societal impact—a variety of public policy projects.

We have worked extensively with the Tennessee Aquarium at Chattanooga on some educational entertainment projects including:

* Making their electric eel power his own Twitter account, tweeting facts whenever he emits a surge of electricity.
* Implementing beacons on their mobile app that uses proximity-based notifications to alert users when they are near an endangered species while touring the aquarium
* A classroom simulation that uses VR to demonstrate the effects of pollution and other harmful behaviors on a river ecosystem
* A “Fish Finder” that is permanently installed near the saltwater reefs that allows children and their parents to deduce the species of fish they are looking at and learn more about them
* TNACIFIN – A network for field scientists that uses geo-location to map where endangered fish have been found to help with conservation efforts

For education:

* We recently launched a behavior monitoring app for the education department that allows future teachers the experience of being in a virtual classroom environment, charged with detecting behavioral issues. You can also play the role of a student -exhibiting– these issues, for fellow classmates to detect.
* One of my pet projects is MakerMinded, which is a multi-state, Department of Defense funded program aimed at integrating STEM and Advanced Manufacturing activities with middle and high school classrooms—we offer points for completing activities, visiting related facilities for tours, etc that can be used towards really cool incentives like winning a 3D printer or a virtual reality station for your classroom.
* In terms of healthcare, we have created a diabetes simulation to show what is going on inside your body to cause this disease, a tour of the heart and lungs that shows how blood becomes oxygenated, and more.
* We work closely with the Tennessee Highway Safety Office on their marketing—which has prompted us to create several educational simulations that showcase why its dangerous to drive while intoxicated, texting, or otherwise distracted or inhibited. One of the projects places users in a simulation of downtown Nashville, complete with an AI that controls the stoplights so that other drivers mimic realistic driving behaviors. The driver is then introduced to simulations of different substances to witness their effect on the driving experience.
* We are working with different research projects as well, that all hold environmental implications. One of our genius students has developed a mechanism for turning recycled water bottles into 3D Printer filament!
* We are working with the Cullman Dam, and also researching the Falling Water River, to generate both engineering and animated models to help decide what course of action will be the most beneficial

How can virtual reality help hospitals?
Hospitals are a unique environment for virtual reality development because it can be applied at so many different levels. From an entertainment perspective, patients who would otherwise be bedridden can now travel the world at a moment’s notice, or simply connect with their family and friends. From a preventative standpoint, VR offers a new tool in education to give patients an “inside look” as to what is going on inside their own bodies—a knowledge which has been proven to be linked to positive behavioral change. For future doctors—and even doctors themselves—VR serves as an interactive learning tool. We have created self-guided, narrated tours of many of the body systems that users can explore at their own pace—sort of in the same vein as the Magic School Bus, but on a much more detailed level.

As we move into the future, the impact on biomedical engineering intertwining with virtual reality has become a daily game changer—lives have been saved from this new set of tools.

mack3

No purrfect Christmas is complete without a tabby cat

People like to know what motivates others, and what their passions are. Why do you do what you do?

I truly love what I do. I’m living every technogeek’s dream!

I love figuring things out, and never quite having the whole answer available to me—which makes the utilization of cutting edge technology very appealing. I love helping others, and being able to do so on such a broad scale is heavily rewarding. We are in the unique position to mentor students from the time they are just entering college to truly fulfill their potential and wildest dreams at the same time that we are helping major businesses with major scalable applications. I’ve gotten to tour NASA and work with the Army and travel a great deal of the US in the pursuits of creating a more broad knowledge base for our students. At the end of the day, we’re representative of the university and we are here to bolster the educational experience, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I truly care about people, and one of my core duties is to listen to people’s needs and figure out how to deliver on them, which I love doing.

The main thing I try to stress to people is to invest a little bit of time to figure out how we might be able to help create new good together. We visit middle and high schools very regularly—not to recruit, but to encourage young minds to start thinking critically and creatively early on. We have a lot of free programs where you can do, see, and earn some pretty cool stuff!

We also offer tours for school groups (and, really anyone who is interested, though we emphasize learning programs!) so if this interests you, schedule a tour and come check us out!

Pushing Boundaries: My Day at iCube

Let’s be honest – we all have a nerdy side to us.

Whether it’s experiencing a new Star Wars movie at an IMAX theater or wreaking havoc in the latest GTA game, we all enjoy an occasional escape into the newest tech. This is all well and good, considering we live in an age where technology dictates the quality of huge portions of our day to day lives. In such a rapidly advancing industry, there’s always something new right around the corner to satiate our appetites for the cutting edge.

Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to get a full on peek at several ground-breaking technologies that are being worked on by the brilliant minds at iCube – a fast growing technology firm located on the campus of TN Technological University (Cookeville, TN).


When you first enter iCube, you are greeted by one of their core philosophies: IMAGINE

iCube, a firm with hardly a year of operation under its belt, has already garnered a plethora of multi million dollar projects. They’ve contracted with private and public entities, their work ranging from hospitals to municipalities.

A friend of mine, Mack Lunn, is a project manager for the institution and was kind enough to give me an in depth look at some of the projects they’re working on. Read about my experience below.


The Oculus Rift – a gateway to another world

My introductory “lesson” was to familiarize myself with one of the primary outlets they work with – virtual reality. Not long after I arrived, Mack had me strapped in and ready to delve into (for me) completely uncharted territories. Once I was positioned correctly, he tuned me into a few of the on board programs that ship with the oculus by default. They were rudimentary apps developed (I imagine) for that very purpose – familiarization. I stepped into the shoes of a virtual line cook, taking orders and cooking digital food. I protected my castle as it was besieged by hundreds of little e-barbarians. I warped into the future and defended myself from dozens of laser shooting drones, moving about in my small space to dodge their fiery attacks. Needless to say, it was freakin’ awesome.


Hitting your VR tour guide with a clipboard is exactly as much fun as it sounds

After realizing I was having entirely too much fun with the default video games that all Oculus devices ship with, Mack’s next step was to show me one of the actual projects that iCube is working on. The first thing he showed me was perhaps the most relevant in terms of scope and benefit to society, which I’ll get to shortly.

In the grand scheme of things, the virtual reality arena is in its infant stages. The technology is finally available on a wide basis, and firms are just now beginning to apply it to all sorts of different industries in a practical manner. In iCubes case, they are currently working on a program with hospitals that will benefit diabetic patients. Here’s how:


The coolest $500K ride I’ve ever been on

Apparently doctors have experienced significant difficulty with getting diabetic patients to follow nutritional and health guidelines, leading to negative results. This is a big problem in the medical field, and one that I’m sure anyone in the medical industry can attest to. So, seeing the problem, there was a behavioral psychologist who one day said “Hey, why don’t we show people what’s happening in their bodies if they ignore our instructions? Maybe then they’ll get it and start eating right.”

This is where iCube comes in. The hospital basically tells them “We have this problem. We want to show people what’s going on in their bodies, and we want them to be able to experience it as if they were inside themselves. People are more likely to respond well and follow directions if they can actually see what’s happening to them.”

iCubes response? “Say no more.”


We come in peace. Take me to your leader

Cue the visbox, the thing you just saw in the photo above. This was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in quite a long time. I got to strap on some goofy looking glasses that made me feel like I had alien antennaes and then took a holographic ride into clogged arteries, walked around inside a human heart, and was apart of a group of red blood cells straight chillin’ in someone’s veins. Needless to say the visbox experience was, as the bards would put it, “totes amaze balls”. And to cap it all, the best part is that these programs are having a positive impact on people’s health, furthering the humanitarian mission of iCube.

The next thing I got to do was tour the development studio. This was great because I’ve always wondered how things go from being an idea in someone’s head into a real program that you can fiddle around with. So Mack took me into what I can only call the Main Event Room, because it looked like that’s where most of the work was getting done. It reminded me of the pictures I’ve seen of Bethesda Studios, Bioware, and the like. Lots of figureines, loads of dual monitor setups, and some super-bad computers.


And now, the main event!

Here I was again strapped into an Oculus, only this time I was sitting in a chair. I got to play around with a project that the firm is developing for the Tennessee Aquarium, virtually snorkeling through a river as I watched contamination levels rise and fall, noting the impact it had on the aquatic ecosystem. The program they ran for me here was one that illustrated how important environmental factors are in regard to marine life.

Finally, one of the last things Mack walked me through was the world of 3D printing. Now I’m sure you’ve all heard of this, but actually seeing and fiddling around with the stuff is so much cooler than watching it online or on TV. Truthfully, I’m still somewhat floored by the fact that human beings have figured out how to literally print objects, but I digress. I doubt that’s something I’ll ever be able to wrap my head around.


3D Printed T-Rex. Rawr!

The stuff starts out as just a simple thin line of plastic, almost like a thick spool of fishing line. Moments later you might have yourself a dragon for your desk, or perhaps a tyrannosaurus if you prefer the Dino route. In any case, the 3D printing process is one of the coolest concepts I can think of in our recent history. And there’s no telling how it’s going to impact different industries. There was one story I was told where a paleontologist used to dig up dinosaur bones and make casts of the incomplete parts, selling the skeletons to museums and collectors for about $30K. His casts costed about 20/25K to produce at the end of the day, so he saw a somewhat healthy profit, right?

Well, when the 3D printers heard about this, they offered to scan the pieces bit by bit and simply print them out of their material, ultimately resulting in an absurd decrease in production costs (down to like, $500/$750). And these pieces were even more durable than the ones created before! How’s that for efficiency? This was a mere glimpse at how the world is going to be changing due to technological advances.


A 3D printed dino who’s name I can’t pronounce 

There were several other things I got to toy with during my time at iCube, but for brevity I’ll stop here. It really was one of the coolest days I’ve had in quite awhile, and I must give a very loud shout out to my friend Mack Lunn for giving me the tour. Thanks man!

The future is now.