TROY, N.Y.—Eight years and $200 million in the making, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) made its debut today on the school's campus here. RPI is billing the EMPAC as a place where artists, visiting scholars, researchers, engineers and designers can explore how their disciplines intersect and use the center's large video screens and super-computer hookup to create immersive, interactive presentations.

RPI president Shirley Ann Jackson called the EMPAC a "balance between left and right brain endeavors" during the center's opening ceremonies and likened the project to a particle accelerator, "an eruption, if you will, of discovery and transformation."

Peter Schwartz, founder and chairman of the San Francisco business consulting firm Global Business Network and a 1968 RPI graduate, noted at the festivities that RPI has come a long way since he was a student, when "art was a thing that was quite peripheral to our lives," he said.

The EMPAC's role will depend on how faculty and students utilize the space. One idea is to use the massive screens and meticulously designed acoustics to create a "holodeck" much like the one featured in the Enterprise spaceship in the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation for training and entertainment, says Selmer Bringsjord, director of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Artificial Intelligence & Reasoning Lab and chairman of the school's department of cognitive science.

In addition to being a state-of-the-art performance space with 220,000 square feet (20,439 square meters) of theaters, studios and work spaces, the center has a very high bandwidth connection to RPI's Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, which has at its heart an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer consisting of 32,768 parallel processors.

Among the goals: to allow artists and researchers to visualize their work on an unprecedented scale; instead of a computer screen measuring 1,000 pixels by 1,000 pixels, data can be projected on a 360-degree panoramic screen covering all four walls and measuring 4,000 pixels by 4,000 pixels. "Supercomputing is generally not interactive," notes James Hendler, an RPI professor of computer science and cognitive science. He adds that this could change if researchers find a way to create interactive presentations—such as a lecture about physics or a demonstration of a virtual world—in which complex calculations are performed and incorporated in real time. "EMPAC will start as technology support for the arts," he says, "but will benefit technology as well."

The EMPAC is similar to MIT's Media Lab, which opened its doors in 1985. The difference: the Media Lab has dabbled in the artistic works with programs such as Object-Based Media, Opera of the Future and Music, Mind and Machine, but the EMPAC plans to merge art with research done on RPI's campus and provide a venue for viewing the results.

(Hybrid Space and the Panoramic Screen by Workspace Unlimited. Photo by Thomas Soetens, © Workspace Unlimited 2008.)