CLEMSON, South Carolina — A customizable, hands-on virtual reality and advanced display system is under development at Clemson University that could change how scientists across the country share information and collaborate, as well as how students learn.

Brygg Ullmer
Brygg Ullmer

The project is led by Brygg Ullmer, chair of the university’s Human-Centered Computing Division, and is one of two grants recently awarded by the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation program (MRI). An MRI grant awarded to environmental researcher Thomas O’Halloran funds the acquisition of a soil greenhouse gas flux measuring system that will help scientists better understand the release of harmful greenhouse gases from the soil to the atmosphere.

MRI grants fund equipment that will support numerous faculty researchers and students across Clemson’s statewide footprint. These are the fourth competitive MRI grants that Clemson researchers have received the last two years. Last year’s grants funded an upgrade to the university’s Palmetto Cluster supercomputer and the acquisition of a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer used in the molecular analysis of a wide variety of materials.

Thomas O'Halloran
Thomas O’Halloran

“This new instrumentation facilitates research across Clemson’s footprint and beyond, fueling the types of collaborative, multidisciplinary research projects that bring meaningful scientific discovery to society and offer unique opportunities for educating students,” said Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research. “This will help us recruit more top-tier researchers and graduate students, as well as future investment in Clemson research.”


Ullmer and a team of scientists received a $500,000 MRI grant to pilot development of a collaborative visualization system they call “Enodia,” which will be housed at the Watt Family Innovation Center. This combines a number of wheeled, reconfigurable multitouch and stereo displays with devices resembling books, clocks and game boards. The displays can be rapidly moved between circular, linear, individual poster and other layouts; the physical controls ease selecting and manipulating content. These will allow groups of researchers to more easily apply the university’s high-performance computing resources to visualize and share computational simulations.

“Enodia will allow groups of faculty, staff, students and the general public to collaborate on applications ranging from genomics and architecture to anti-bullying,” Ullmer said.

An early version of the Enodia system is tested at the Watt Family Innovation Center.
An early version of the Enodia system is tested at the Watt Family Innovation Center.

Watt Center Director Todd Marek said: “Computation is a critical component of many innovations at Clemson. Since our opening three years ago, the Watt Center’s hundreds of displays have provided advanced resources for multidisciplinary visualization of digital information. Enodia will extend this capability significantly, providing new ways to interact with data not only to those at Clemson, but also to collaborators across our state and nation.”

In addition to Marek, co-principal investigators on the project include Larry Hodges, Miriam Konkel and Andrew Robb. Ullmer also is collaborating with 20 senior investigators from 15 academic units at Clemson and partners at Benedict College, Drury University, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, the University of South Carolina and Xavier University.

“When we work with consortia spanning dozens of institutions across the globe, our weekly meetings have typically been constrained to shared slides by dozens of conference call participants,” said Konkel, an assistant professor of genetics and biochemistry. “In addition to conference calls, the flexibility of Enodia can be used for student collaborations, in-person meetings by scientists and many other uses.”

Measuring Greenhouse Gas

O’Halloran received a $230,597 MRI grant to acquire a soil greenhouse gas flux measuring system that calculates the concentration of gases like methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide released by the soil. Nitrous oxide and methane, particularly, can strongly influence the climate, O’Halloran said. Better understanding the soil’s role in releasing these gases can help landowners and public policymakers manage land and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

The information also could be used to help farmers optimize fertilizer usage by letting them know how much is absorbed by plants versus how much is converted to gas and essentially wasted to the atmosphere.

“That’s better for their bottom line and for the environment,” said O’Halloran, an assistant professor of forestry and environmental conservation who is stationed at Clemson’s Belle W. Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science in Georgetown.

O’Halloran will collaborate with numerous Clemson researchers, as well as scientists from the University of North Carolina and Virginia Tech. His equipment will be mobile and available for use by agricultural researchers at Clemson’s research and education centers in Charleston, Columbia, Florence, Blackville and Clemson.

O’Halloran and his collaborators can use the data collected to valuate carbon credits in coastal wetlands and conservation easements on restored rice fields, for example. Researchers will use the equipment to calibrate life cycle assessments of switchgrass production for biofuels and to understand how sea-level rise is affecting coastal ecosystems.

“We’re a little worried that as sea-level rises, some coastal ecosystems may release greenhouse gases as they degrade or transition to other ecosystem types. We also want to determine whether farmers and land managers in impounded wetlands could mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by managing flooding cycles or nutrient applications. These are just a few questions we want to help answer,” O’Halloran said.

This new machine provides another tool for O’Halloran to assess the exchange of gases and energy between the Earth and the atmosphere and provide a more complete picture of the impact rising sea levels have on coastal ecosystems. He also operates a 120-foot tower at the Baruch Institute that measures the exchange of carbon, water and energy between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere. Already, O’Halloran worked with a team of international scientists to create a global map measuring the cooling effect forests have by regulating the exchange of water and energy between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere, potentially a valuable tool in efforts to mitigate climate change.

Paula Agudelo, interim associate dean of research for Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, said, “Dr. O’Halloran’s research epitomizes the role of the scientists at Clemson’s research and education centers around the state who seek to develop a better understanding of South Carolina’s distinct soil and climate regions.

“This grant will not only allow for the collection of valuable atmospheric data about coastal ecosystems such as the one where the Baruch Institute is located, but by having this technology available to researchers at other Clemson Experiment Station facilities, it will also make an impact on the quality of life for people across the entire state,” she said. “Further, collaborating with scientists from around the world means this work can make a difference well beyond South Carolina’s borders, as well.”

Robert Jones, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at Clemson, said the Major Research Instrumentation grants further solidify Clemson’s place as a leader in research and education.

“This cutting-edge equipment opens the doors to numerous research opportunities for faculty and will be integral in the training of both undergraduate and graduate students who have access to some of the best equipment available in their fields,” Jones said.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1828611 (Ullmer) and Grant No. 1828167 (O’Halloran). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Science Foundation.

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