Too Cool For School
With Google, CNN and even Hollywood calling, are some research projects at Arizona universities becoming too big for their budgets?
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published: TechConnect, Fall, 2006
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Ever since Noel Gorelick’s presentation got posted on Google Video, the head of software development at the Arizona State University Mars Space Flight Facility has been fielding calls from interested parties looking to turn his 3-D imaging software into the latest hot technology.
“Everyone who sees what we can do with these cameras is like, ‘Omigod! I need one of these!’” says the lightly bearded, affably laid-back researcher, pulling up some animated GIFs on the dual Dell monitors spanning across his cluttered
desk in the Moeur Building near the center of the ASU campus. “It’s the kind of thing that, once somebody sees it, it captures their imagination.”
What Gorelick’s software does is take images of real scenes, processed by a flash ladar camera hand-made by a small company in Santa Barbara, California, and render them, in real time, as metrically accurate 3-D worlds, where you can twist, turn and move about the terrain as easily as you now cruise the streets in Grand Theft Auto.
“You could imagine what video game developers could do with this,” says Gorelick. “Or filmmakers. Right now, there’s no way to interact with your TV and say, ‘Okay, I’d like to see this from over here.’ But this technology could easily drive that.”
The Matrix guys could use Gorelick’s software to get that whole bullet-time effect with only two cameras, instead of a hundred. With these cameras and his code, Gorelick adds, Google could easily add a layer to Google Earth that would generate fully-interactive 3-D views of every major city in the US. Just move the mouse to turn your own neighborhood into something straight out of The Sims.
In fact, Gorelick has pitched that very idea to Google, where he already has an in. The thermal infrared spectroscopy produced by the twin 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers – a full-scale model of which can be seen in the Moeur Building lobby just outside Gorelick’s office – is the handiwork of ASU researchers, and provide much of the data used on Google Mars. That Web-based application uses infrared imagery collected from the last two NASA Mars missions to provide a realistic (if slightly enhanced) view of the entire Red Planet.
But so far, beyond inviting Gorelick and the project’s co-developers to speak at its Mountain View, California, headquarters and posting a video of the presentation in its “TechTalk” series, Google hasn’t bought into the idea.
“You’d think that a technology where you can map an entire city, very quickly, in 3-D would be right in line with their interests,” he says. But Gorelick’s rough demo – rushed barely a week after he got his software up and running – apparently left too much even to the fertile imaginations of the Google camp.
“With a really good demo, the applications of this technology are self-explanatory,” he says. “Without it, it’s vaporware.”
To get that great demo, Gorelick would really like ASU to buy him a plane. “If I can get an airplane, put this camera on it and fly over Phoenix or Tempe and show the images to the right people, that’s all it would take.”
Problem is, the university’s not ready to buy a plane for its Mars software guy – particularly when the administration views his work on the 3-D camera as a kind of extracurricular activity.
“We’ve had that conversation a couple times now,” Gorelick says. “And the answer is, ‘You can work on it all you want, as long as you keep our Mars missions flying.’”
He scowls. “The thing is, the NASA stuff pretty much runs itself now. Whether I do it or somebody else does it, it just happens. But this,” he says, turning back to the animations on his screen, “has the potential to bring in way more money than the NASA contracts.”
“Great place to work”
Gregory Raupp stands looking out the window of his office on the top floor of the MacroTechnology Works building at the ASU Research Park in Tempe and smiles as, below, busy electrical and chemical engineers enjoy a break on some of the jogging and bike trails circling one of the park’s three placid lakes.
“My engineers tell me this is a great place to work,” says Raupp with a chuckle, admitting he’s been spending much of his own time lately jetting to overseas meetings to discuss the exciting things going on at his center with interested parties from all around Asia and Europe. “We’re isolated from the main university, we’re free from all that distraction, and we sit here and we just focus. We focus on making these darn things work.”
Raupp is the director of the two-year-old Flexible Display Center, the facility built with $43.7 million in funds from ASU and the Army Research Laboratory to develop flexible, low-power computer screens that industry watchers predict will be the biggest thing in tech since the silicon chip. Prototypes of the FDC’s bendable, wrapable displays have already appeared in all the top technology publications, from TechConnect to Scientific American, and 16 big-business partners have so far signed on to help bring the center’s groundbreaking concepts to reality.
In every way, Raupp’s Flexible Design Center is the model of what every high-tech researcher at the three Arizona universities dreams for his or her own adventurous project. And Raupp says he’s seen a boom in such projects since pro-tech president Michael Crow took over at ASU in 2002 and pushed for passage of House Bill 2529, which split $440 million in state funds for technological research between ASU, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. NAU president John Haeger and UA’s Robert Shelton have fortified the tech push, with Shelton even proposing an “enterprise model” aimed at increasing the school’s licensing income from the number of patents grown out of university research.
“In the 20 years I’ve been with the university, there’s always been gradual advances in tech research. But in the last four years, it’s jumped like this,” Raupp says, pantomiming a progress chart going off the page. “The strides we’re making, in such a short period of time, are simply unprecedented. No one else has ever gone through the meteoric change that we’re going through – and maybe that’s why people can’t imagine so many exciting things are coming out of Phoenix.
“But when you do get ‘em here,” Raupp adds, “and show ‘em the Biology Center and Decision Theater and this place, their mouths just drop. They all say, ‘I had no idea.’”
At NAU and the U of A, a similar meteoric rise in research activity has been taking place. Today, University of Arizona physicists are busy perfecting long-lasting metal nanowires and single molecule transistors for the hot nanotech industry while scientists at Northern Arizona University are heavily engaged in advanced gene research and developing an innovative technique to stop the spread of tuberculosis (see sidebar). But the boom in high-tech research at the universities has also spawned some ambitious projects that its creators are beginning to consider too cool for school. In an age where the fortunes of so many start-up companies are being made on the backs of high-tech revolutions, a few engineers, scientists and physicists on the university payrolls are starting to wonder if the grass may be greener on the corporate side.
Charles Stafford, one of two UA physicists who, along with a doctorate student, discovered a way to build a working transistor out of a single molecule – a goal that’s been kind of the Holy Grail for nanotechnologists – has been pushing the university to apply for a patent on their invention, which they’ve nicknamed “QuIET” (short for Quantum Interference Effect Transistor). “If the patent is not finally filed and if this thing does make it big, we’re gonna be kicking ourselves ten years from now,” Stafford says. “I’ve heard the chemistry lab at Oxford is trying to build one of these things now.”
The race to be the first to develop next-generation transistors holds significant rewards. One day, all computers could likely use the super-small device, and medicine could even inject the microprocessing molecule into the human body to repair damaged organs from within.
As a scientist, Stafford says, he’s proud to see his innovation being picked up by other research labs. “But as a person,” he adds, with a laugh, “sure, I would love to get rich off of this.”
Even if UA secures the patent rights for QuIET, Stafford himself isn’t likely to make his fortune off of it. According to the university’s Intellectual Property Policy, the college gets 15% of any revenue received from the commercialization of an invention plus any costs incurred by the school in making the transfer happen. Even more restrictive, state law stipulates that neither the university nor the professor is allowed to participate in the continued profits to be made after the invention is sold.
“For something that’s kind of far out like this, the most likely scenario would be someone might want to build a start-up company based on this technology, and then the university would conceivably get a lot of money from having an interest in their company,” Stafford says. “But that’s forbidden by state law.”
Does this situation ever prompt an acadamian to save their most brilliant ideas for after school, possibly for their own start-up venture? “Well, we’ve certainly thought about it!” admits Stafford, who worked at NEC before coming to the U of A. “But most physicists wouldn’t have access to the lab equipment to treat problems as rigorously as we do in the university level.
“Besides,” he adds, “we’re scientists first. Few of us are also businessmen.”
As the director of education at NAU's Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research, Stefan Sommer is proud to have assisted a team of students, scientists and ecologists throughout 15 years of research that finally resulted in the decommissioning by APS of a 100-year-old dam and hydroelectric facility on Fossil Creek, restoring the stream to a natural habitat for endangered fish and water life.
But as the producer of a new public TV documentary chronicling the research, titled “A River Reborn: The Restoration of Fossil Creek,” Sommer is suddenly looking to the success of other green-friendly documentaries like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and wondering how far his little film, narrated by Flagstaff property owner Ted Danson, might actually go. “We just had our first screening of it last Saturday, here at [NAU’s] Ardrey Auditorium, and we packed the house!” says Sommer. “It was standing room only. I’m still reeling from the whole experience.”
Though the mild-manned researcher insists there’s no danger of him being bit by the Hollywood bug, he says he’s excited by the prospect of his team’s story being shared with a wide audience. “In January, it’s going to be satellite-fed to 357 PBS stations,” he says. The NAU team chemically monitored the travertine deposits of calcium carbonate in the stream where flow diversion for hydropower production had altered the natural formations, then compared it to sections where the stream ecosystem was less effected to determine how returning carbonate-rich spring water to the stream could help the ecosystem.
Among tech researchers, there’s often some resentment when one colleague’s project with a broader public appeal becomes hyped by the media. At NAU, researchers are also working on things like applying mathematical modeling to better understand cellular signal transduction pathways, and developing microscopic systems to detect environmental contaminants within animals. But none of those projects have Ted Danson as a spokesman.
Some schools such as ASU Polytechnic can go unjustly ignored by the media. Right now, students and faculty at the Polytechnic campus are engaged in far-reaching research on wind energy, applied psychology, aviation, agribusiness and wildlife. But all these projects combined have not been receiving the promotional push behind the Research Park’s Flexible Design Center.
“Too much hype can damage your reputation in the science community,” says the UA’s Stafford, who took some heat from bloggers in the nano community for comparing the possible medical applications of his single molecule transistor to the scene in the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, where a tiny team of surgeons traveled through a human body. “As scientists, we don’t need to sensationalize these things to make them interesting,” he says. “But popularizing science requires a little of that.”
And making science popular can translate into more funds for the university and, pending legislative approval in Arizona that currently stands in the way of allowing researchers to freely market their innovations, potential windfalls in intellectual property rights for the scientists.
In the meantime, academia’s best and brightest continue to toil away at their projects, occasionally saving their most brilliant ideas for joint venture operations they pursue in their limited spare time.
Back at the ASU Mars facility, Noel Gorelick leans into his monitors and announces he’s about to show an application for his 3-D video software that is “still kind of secret.” The publicized concepts for the camera and its software are exciting enough. Someday, Gorelick hopes to put the technology in the hands of firefighters, so they can get an entire view of a building before entering it, and eventually into every automobile on the road, so that the cars can automatically see and steer clear of accidents. “If someday I could say I wrote the software to help a car drive itself,” he says, “that’d be very, very cool.”
But Gorelick still has one trick up his sleeve that apparently no one outside his office has seen. Pulling up a few more animated GIFs on his computer, Gorelick rough-demos a technique for revolutionizing live broadcasting that could easily have all the major TV networks in a bidding war for his technology. “There are definitely some markets that we want to look into,” he says. “All we need is that killer demo.”