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Collaborating in the Cube

Immersive audio at Virginia Tech

Students understand—and demand—a collaborative learning experience. This sometimes requires a new kind of environment, and it always involves a new approach to AV. Sometimes both. For many universities, having unique and powerful collaborative spaces helps them attract students and serve them better. The core of collaborative spaces—if they are to succeed—is well-designed, highly functional AV.

The Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), established in 2011 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., is a university-level research institute that defines itself as a “trans-disciplinary living lab.” Going well beyond the typical media lab, ICAT brings together the arts, design, engineering, and science in a unique collaborative environment. Students, faculty, industrial partners, and community volunteers work together within the institute’s collaborative studios.

The Cube is a four-story-high, state-of-the-art theater and high-tech laboratory that serves multiple platforms of creative practice by the faculty, students, guest artists, and researchers at Virginia Tech.

ICAT, which is partnered with the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, is headquartered within the Moss Arts Center; the $100-million, 147,000-square-foot facility designed by Snøhetta in collaboration with Arup, Theatre Projects and STV was completed in October 2013. The arts center encompasses a 1,260-seat flexible performance venue, several traditional, digital, and new media art galleries totaling 4,200 square feet, and various other studio spaces. The building also houses facilities supporting the Department of Communication, including a multimedia studio, production control room, newsroom, and associated classroom space.

The Moss Arts Center also features the Cube. Unique in the world, the Cube is a four-story-high, state-of-the-art theater and high-tech laboratory that serves multiple platforms of creative practice by faculty, students, national and international guest artists, and researchers. The Cube is a highly adaptable space for research and experimentation in big data exploration, immersive environments, intimate performances, audio and visual installations, and experiential investigations of all types. This facility is shared between ICAT and the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech.

Sixty-four JBL SCS-8 two-way 8in. coaxial full-range surround speakers are suspended at regular intervals below the firststory catwalk, with 60 more creating a hemisphere above that lower ring.

Global firm Arup consulted with a team led by ICAT director Ben Knapp on the Cube’s innovative audiovisual system design. “The idea was to provide a palette with which to sculpt sound,” says Denis Blount, Arup’s acoustic and AV consultant who collaborated with co-designer and project manager Terence Caulkins, senior acoustics and AV consultant at Arup New York. “They wanted the ability to experiment with wave field synthesis, ambi-sonics, and VBAP—vector base amplitude panning. The system was designed to support experimentation with any of those. They can put sound anywhere within the space, and push the boundaries of 3D audio.”

With the arts center already wired with 10Gb Ethernet and fiber, it was easy to implement new systems and equipment into the Cube, requiring little more than the addition of the loudspeakers and DSP. As for which protocol would best serve the purposes of the Cube’s installed AV systems, according to ICAT media engineer Tanner Upthegrove, “Because of existing equipment and infrastructure, we chose Dante to leverage our network infrastructure, while being the most cost-effective and technologically sound means of achieving our vision for immersive 3D audio experiences.”

He elaborates, “The institute that I work for shares the building with the Center for the Arts, which is a presentation organization for Virginia Tech. They have all kinds of theater equipment, from mixing consoles to outboard gear that is Dante-enabled. It’s trivial to bring in a console and plug it into the Dante network. That rapid deployment is critical for us, since we’re changing all the time. It makes sense to use Dante for distribution because it’s self-determining. If something fails, we can swap it out quickly.”

Because the Moss Arts Center is fully wired, he continues, “We can connect Dante endpoints anywhere in the building. We could have a concert in the performance hall and have it play back in the Cube in realtime. We have three spatial sound labs in other locations on campus that we are preparing to connect with Dante.”

The exact loudspeaker count in the Cube was the result of design discussions, Blout says. We took into consideration the architecture of the space and the optimum positioning to support the reproduction formats. Specifically, he says, “The wave field synthesis system for this room size requires a ring of loudspeakers, roughly at ear height with no more than one-meter spacing, so that defined our starting point.”

Sixty-four JBL SCS-8 two-way 8in. coaxial full-range surround speakers are suspended at regular intervals below the first-story catwalk, with 60 more creating a hemisphere above that lower ring. The loudspeaker was selected after exhaustive listening tests, including evaluation and measurement within the Cube, as well as careful consideration of factors including sound quality, frequency response, power handling, infrastructure support, and ease of installation. “The loudspeaker selection was a fundamental piece of the design process, if not the most important decision,” Blout says.

Three Dante-compliant BLU-806 signal processors from BSS, another Harman Professional brand, are installed to provide calibration of the immersive speaker system.

“For amplification, we looked for the highest channel-count Dante-enabled amp at the right power rating that is as quiet as possible. One of the design requirements was installing these amps in the Cube—which is a very quiet space by design,” Blout says.

The solution was provided by Yamaha and its XMV8280-D 8-channel Class-D power amplifier. A total of 16 are installed in custom noise-isolating rack enclosures from Sound Construction and Supply. “The amps were a bit louder than we wanted them to be in the space,” Blout explains. It might have been preferable to locate the amps remotely, but another design criterion was the ability to strike the speakers to accommodate the technical requirements of touring or other productions. “So it would have involved more cabling that would have made setup and strike a lot more difficult,” he says.

The Cube’s Dante infrastructure is an integral part of the system’s network as many of the endpoints for other departments that use the space are Dante-enabled. Deployment is faster and if something fails, it’s easier to swap out.

Four Meyer Sound UMS-1P subwoofers provide low frequency extension and bring the immersive speaker system channel count to 128. There are also nine Holosonics AS-24i Audio Spotlight speakers, which provide extremely directional coverage using ultrasonic technology. “We also have 10 JBL LSR 6328P loudspeakers on stage, at ear height,” reports Upthegrove.

Every channel in the system is routable and addressable through the Dante network, he adds: “I’m utilizing a Focusrite PCIe card with Dante for 128 channels and aggregating that with Dante Virtual Soundcard on Mac OSX for a total of 192 channels.”

The wave field synthesis renderer, a Wave1 processor from Swiss-based Sonic Emotion, a 64-channel system, offers only MADI inputs and outputs, necessitating the addition of a Focusrite RedNet 6 MADI bridge to interface with the Dante network. “Part of the fit-out included a monstrous, powerful PC that can ingest and output all of the audio,” reports Blount. “The idea is that multiple researchers can come in and plug into the network and push audio content to any of the speakers. Dante was really attractive because it’s computer and software agnostic; you just need a Dante Virtual Soundcard and a network cable and you can push digital audio to any of these loudspeakers through this PC, which is either encoding or decoding to wave field synthesis, ambisonics, or VBAP.”

Blount notes that the audio system also enables presentations in more prosaic formats, albeit with enhancements: “The wave field synthesis system allows us to create virtual loudspeaker positions and plane waves, so that instead of there being a sweet spot for stereo or 5.1 there’s a sweet area, and everyone has basically the same sonic experience.”

ICAT hosted the annual Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) conference in late March. “I think SEAMUS is a prime exemplar of how we’re using the system for aesthetic research,” says Upthegrove. “In the Cube, we had five concerts over three days that ran the entire gamut of what you can do in the space, from 8-channel pieces to 134.4-channel pieces, and all styles of music.”

FutureHaus, an example of a multidisciplinary project, is a collaboration between architecture and computer science disciplines under the auspices of Denis Gracanin and Joe Wheeler. “They’re developing the house of the future; they’ve made the 3D model and you can walk around inside of it inside the Cube,”

Upthegrove says. “The sound component is interesting; they’re going to use wave field synthesis to convey the sense of space for all the users at the same time. Additionally, they’re going to utilize Holosonics speakers that create a very precise spotlight of sound that can be targeted to individual people in the space; they can have their own unique sonic experience.” Upthegrove also reports that he is collaborating with mechanical engineering professor Mike Roan on a project studying stadium acoustics and crowd noise. “We took recordings of a Virginia Tech football game with a soundfield microphone and reproduced them in the Cube using ambisonic reproduction. There is growing interest in how the crowd engages with teams, how the players respond to the crowd, and how to provide a better experience for the fans.

“As you can imagine, it’s extraordinarily loud; we were getting peak measurements of 111 dBA on the field. The point is that we can recreate those sound pressure levels and that experience. The Cube is the perfect place to reproduce it.”


Video in The Cube takes two main forms. For large-scale presentations and art installations—which accounts for approximately 25 percent of content in the Cube—four Christie DHD800 1080p projectors play back imagery to four overhead custom scrims.

However, for all the wonderful drama of the art installations, The Cube’s primary role is for research, specifically into virtual/augmented reality and spacial sound. This research includes investigating the technology itself, as well as research into methods and impacts of using the technology. Researchers and students investigate new ways of doing virtual collaboration, and/or study the impact of spatial and virtual 3D experiences on human beings.

For this purpose, video plays back through Oculus Rift and Sony head-mounted displays or onto Apple, Asus, and Microsoft tablets. Content is sourced to these displays from a local cloud of renderers—custom Dell machines running Nvidia Grid hardware and software. Twenty-four Qualisys motion-capture cameras locate the viewer in the space and cue rendered imagery that exactly corresponds with the individual’s position within The Cube. As users walk and turn their heads (or move their tablets), imagery updates to match their spatial orientation.

“The Cube can be configured differently for different setups,” says Virginia Tech media engineer Tanner Upthegrove. “So we have a few canonical configurations, but most setups are unique to the research or the event. Just about every event is unique and will pull in other equipment for the facility as needed.

To this end, The Cube is supported with a remarkable array of I/O, and literally thousands of patch points for analog audio, HD-SI, single- and multimode fiber, Cat-6A, Dante over copper, etc.

“The originators of the design knew that whatever they designed would be out of spec in five years,” Upthegrove says. Further, one goal of the institute is continued research into future display and audio equipment. As a result, it was necessary for the infrastructure to be a flexible platform for gear and experiments yet to come.
–Cynthia Wisehart

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