How Libraries are Transforming Access to Spaces for the Development and Communication of Research

Rethinking Our Relationship with Sound and Images

In March 2018, Concordia University unveiled their newly renovated Webster Library. This transformational project provided a way for Library staff to rethink entirely what it means to provide access to spaces for learning, teaching, and research, as information and technology become increasingly entangled. The Webster Library renovation incorporated many different types of spaces for librarians, faculty and students to interact, study, and conduct research. While many of these spaces integrate a range of different technologies, from 3D printers, to equipment for data visualization, the design of the Library is focused on the needs of the Library’s patrons through a human-centric approach.

It is an ongoing challenge to look beyond the division between more traditional technologies and digital tools, a challenge the Library has encountered while developing a service model for one of the more technology-focused spaces, the Webster Library Visualization Studio. During the design phase, the plans for the Studio went through multiple iterations all with an intention to provide access to a space for exploring immersive, interactive visualizations, and data analytics for all disciplines. This has become an ongoing challenge with respect to the evolving nature of the technology, and the service model for the space. I was hired as a technology analyst in August 2018 to oversee this development.

With a background in audiovisual technology, media art, and design, I have an ardent interest in bridging divides between people and technologies to open new possibilities for research and development. Much of this interest stems from an interest in understanding the unique affordances of technology spaces with respect to different applications and uses. I was fortunate to be handed the reins to a space that was not designed for any one specific type of research or creative application. The Webster Visualization Studio was created to accommodate a broad range of activities and features a high-resolution interactive video wall, a powerful graphics server with a suite of development tools, and multiple ways to connect to and configure the system. From the Studio’s raised floor to the technical grid in the ceiling, the room is very much a blank canvas allowing researchers a range of different options to develop and showcase projects with varying timelines.

Video (left) : A virtual tour of the Webster Library Visualization Studio created by: David Somiah Clark

Since August 2018, the Webster Library has worked to build a community around the Visualization Studio. Much of this has been achieved through outreach and fostering relationships with researchers and their communities. An integral part of what we have achieved thus far, with respect to research and creative activities in the Studio, has been working closely with librarians, faculty, and students to develop an intimate understanding of the unique needs of each researcher. By understanding the very different research-driven practices of, for example, a studio arts student and a geography professor, we have been able to facilitate their work by continually evolving the technology and the service model of the space. Our experience has shown this to be a fundamental part of supporting a space that is focused around providing access to audiovisual technology.

Providing access to a facility with advanced and highly customized technology can restrict as much as it can open possibilities for research. This limitation has to do with the nature of designing a room with unique affordances. Many researchers who have developed work in the Webster Visualization Studio end up with content that can only be experienced in our space, on a screen with a 48:9 aspect ratio. However, this will always be an issue with developing an advanced technology space, and in our case, the sheer scale of the studio display wall is what makes it possible to explore how we relate with visual media and images—the medium is very much the message. While it is difficult for researchers to transfer their studio work to another facility, the Visualization Studio does facilitate events to showcase a broad range of projects to the research community and beyond.

Another consequence of building a technology-focused space such as the Webster Visualization Studio relates to how equipment can, at times, overshadow its application. This has been an issue for researchers who are interested in immersion or representing their research in a physical space in order to shift or change how it is experienced. When confronted with a room built around a 9.2- by 1.7-metre display wall, it can be a challenge to get beyond the imposing presence of the display. One way that we have worked to overcome the dominance of the Studio’s display wall has been by thinking beyond a predominantly visual experience in the room. Specifically, we have designed and integrated an immersive audio system in the room—the Studio was initially designed with a four-zone mono audio system in the ceiling for sound playback from different input devices. With respect to integrating an immersive audio system into an existing visualization space, it was necessary to balance our design objectives. First and foremost, it was essential that the sound treatment augment the existing attributes of the room such as its size, shape, and existing technology: namely, the display wall. Next, the integrated technology must be set up in such a way as to make it accessible to researchers from all disciplines, without requiring them to have previous experience working with immersive sound.

During the planning phase of the Studio’s audio system, we conducted an environmental scan of audiovisual spaces situated within university libraries. The most common type of audio systems paired with visualization walls were cinematic—surround sound systems including 5.1 (six channel) or 7.1 (eight channel) audio, that make it possible to move sounds around a fixed audience on a horizontal, ear-level plane. At the same time, we noticed a trend: academic institutions integrating immersive audio systems in faculties focused on audio research and electroacoustic studies. These immersive systems were often situated within specific academic departments, and were not necessarily paired with visualization technologies. Since we wanted to provide access to a space that would allow for the development and communication of research in an immersive environment, it was paramount that we create a single system out of multiple audio and visual components. With this objective, we designed an audio system that would make it possible to move sounds in three dimensions throughout the room, to follow and augment visual media, and interact with the movements of people in the space. While immersive audio systems exist in many different research spaces in academic institutions, and in industry, we wanted to explore what it would mean to provide access to an integrated audiovisual studio within a university library—a space accessible by all university faculties and departments.

Our research and planning resulted in an immersive audio system made up of 27 speakers and a single subwoofer for reproducing low frequencies. The speakers are wrapped around the Studio in 3 layers—10 speakers are situated below the display wall, 10 above the display wall, and the remaining 7 speakers are in the ceiling—and the focus is in front of the display wall. Essentially, we created a three-dimensional sound box that extrudes from the surface of the display all the way to the far side of the room. This physical layout is an open format, insofar as it allows researchers to work with a broad range of software and audio tools. We are currently in the process of creating simplified workflows for researchers without previous experience working with immersive sound. While the audio hardware allows for multiple workflows, we are focusing on providing access to key software tools that facilitate working with immersive sound such as the software application Spat Revolution, the result of a partnership between the software engineering company Flux:: and the French research institute IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music).

Up to this point, we have worked with researchers from departments including Concordia’s Department of Music, Studio Arts, Independent Studies, Design and Computation Arts, and the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science. Researchers have worked on a diverse range of projects that explore how spatialized sound can extend the range of projects that are more traditionally communicated using visual media and mono or stereo sound. While these projects are vastly different, they share an awareness of how immersive sound can enrich the communication of different aspects of research.

Researchers have worked on a diverse range of projects that explore how spatialized sound can extend the range of projects that are more traditionally communicated using visual media and mono or stereo sound.

Kasey Pocius, a recent graduate from Concordia’s Electroacoustic Studies program in the Department of Music, worked in the studio to develop “Spaces Within,” an investigation into how the perception of spaces can be warped through audiovisual technologies. The visual and immersive audio technologies in the Studio allowed Pocius to explore hybrid synthetic and organic spaces through connections and tensions between audio and visual elements serving as independent actors on the physical space. Pocius also assisted extensively with the planning and installation of the spatialized sound equipment in the studio and is now helping with the development of procedures and software tools to facilitate a range of research activities.

Video (right) : A headphone mix and 16×9 video version of the Spaces Within composition originally developed for the Webster Library Visualization Studio created by: Kasey Pocius

We are still at the early stages of integrating spatialized sound in our Studio and, as with the overarching service model for the space, we are continually looking to evolve the technology and service model to make it more capable and accessible. Since installing the immersive sound system during the second half of 2020, the immersive system has been used predominantly by students and faculty from the Department of Music including Ricardo Dal Farra and Eldad Tsabary; however, there has been a keen interest and early development of projects by other faculty interested in immersive sound such as Ursula Eiker, Canada’s new Canada Excellence Research Chair in Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Communities and Cities, and Zachary Patterson, Associate Professor from the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment. While the Studio’s large display wall extends the ability to play with the scale relationships between media and observers, immersive sound opens many new and exciting possibilities. Our minds process and perceive images and sound in radically different ways. The sense of sight provides us with a three dimensional window to the world which is then flattened by visual displays. The sense of sound is an embodied experience and the reproduction of sound through different speaker layouts from mono to immersive setups transforms the ability to communicate spatial information to participants situated in a physical space. Some examples of research projects that are currently exploring these sensory relationships include the work of a student in Concordia’s Studio Arts Program, Debora Alanna. Through her work, Alanna explores the affordances of virtual spaces using virtual reality hardware, software and tools which are treated as a creative material through which to explore archetypes and mythologies. In an upcoming collaboration, Alanna will create a series of spatialized sound works based on the visual scores of artist Lance Austen Olsen, to be developed and showcased in the Studio.

Another example of a project leveraging the technology in the Studio involves the use of high-resolution video and spatialized sound to communicate geospatial and urban data (data collected in the city’s physical environment. Ursula Eicker is currently working with students to communicate complex intercity data through immersion. While data visualization provides a fluid way to communicate many aspects of urban data, immersive sound makes it possible to explore the sonification of urban spaces with respect to how we design our cities and transportation systems. Sound plays a significant role in the overall wellbeing and health of citizens living in urban spaces, and there is no better way to communicate connections between cities and sound than by extending data-driven geospatial images and video with spatialized sound.

Hopefully these few examples will impart the breadth of potential research activities made possible through the development and support of an immersive research space such as the Webster Library Visualization Studio. Our experiences indicate that there is significant need for these types of spaces and, as we continue to drive forward our vision for this one unique space, we are interested in how other libraries are integrating similar facilities. We are continually expanding our Concordia research community through collaborations with other academic institutions and libraries. These collaborations steered the Webster Library’s initial transformation, and continue to guide the evolution of how we provide access to spaces for the development and communication of research.


David Somiah Clark
Technology Analyst / Concordia Libraries

David Somiah Clark holds a B.F.A. in Computation Arts from Concordia University in Montreal where he is currently completing a master’s degree in Design. His research investigates how we sense and make sense of the world by developing interactive installations and wearable devices that intervene in how we connect to each other and our environments.

Before returning to full-time studies David worked as an audiovisual consultant designing integrated media solutions for clients including the Canadian Space Agency and CAE Healthcare. David’s current role as a Technology Analyst in the Webster Library involves assisting with the design and development of the Library’s technology resources and services.