An expanded Digital Media Lab provides students and faculty a revolutionary experience
By Lauren Weiss
What do video games and a new UMass Amherst campus tour have in common? For one, a startup called Interactiva Studios, founded by Adrian Chase ’23. The company specializes in innovative online showcase solutions that are fun and interactive.
The impetus behind the startup was a new virtual tour of UMass Amherst, which Chase has been working on since 2019. Instead of using Google Street View’s point-and-click images of campus, “Interactiva uses real-time computer-generated imagery, the same technology used in modern video games, allowing users to walk [through a space] as if they were actually there,” says Chase.
The tour takes place in an interactive virtual world that the user navigates using their keyboard and mouse on the computer, or touch controls on mobile devices. As the user progresses, they can choose what path to follow on campus, how to respond to the questions of the tour guide, or even what questions to ask about the different locations. These choices affect where they visit during the tour and even what virtual characters—the tour guide, faculty, and students—they meet. This approach allows virtual tours like the UMass Amherst project to be uniquely engaging to every visitor.
Chase was energized by his project, both because he believed it was something he could accomplish and because it would help UMass. “I’m always up for a challenge,” he adds.
As Chase began to develop the tour, he quickly realized that he needed high-quality audiovisual equipment to do so. “I heard the Library had recording rooms, something I needed. I Googled it and found the Digital Media Lab,” he says, “and I’ve been working with them ever since.”
The Digital Media Lab (DML) is a space in the W. E. B. Du Bois Library dedicated to
providing interdisciplinary support to the campus community with innovative technology, audiovisual equipment, virtual and augmented reality capabilities, and 3D printing.
The lab got its start when Sarah Hutton, the libraries’ former head of student success and engagement and current interim dean of the libraries, recognized the need for multimedia production support on campus.
“Working with Information Technology, faculty, students, and colleagues in the libraries, I co-chaired a task force that conducted campus-wide needs assessments, including surveys, focus groups, and interviews, asking our community what type of creative media learning opportunities and digital scholarship they wanted to engage in, and what was preventing them from doing so,” Hutton says. The group identified critical areas of need, and established a plan for developing a space in the libraries to support audio recording, green screen video capture, and media production work. “The task force continued to meet to discuss potential staffing models, including both full-time employees and student staff—everything that would be needed to reach our shared vision of a vibrant, student-centric community space.”
This community space opened in 2013 on floor 3 of the W. E. B. Du Bois Library, and it has grown significantly since, including the addition of 3D printing services, developed by the late Jeanne Antill, the first DML coordinator, and Dennis Spencer, 3D print services supervisor, as well as virtual and augmented reality capabilities brought in by Antill and Yuntian Hu, desk supervisor and lead VR/AR developer.
“The DML helps students not just in presenting their knowledge, but also in knowledge creation in a space that is available to everyone on campus,” Spencer says.
“Spaces like the DML are transformative spaces that highlight what a modern library should be,” says Steve Acquah, current DML coordinator and associate research professor of chemistry. “Library-based innovation centers and media labs benefit from being college- and department-agnostic, making access to equipment and services effortless.”
Hu agrees. “Back when I was an undergraduate from 2004 to 2008, the University Video Center in the Student Union was the only department providing these kinds of services. And it was not free; students had to pay annual membership fees to rent cameras, mics, storage, etc. If you wanted to record audio, you had to go off campus to Amherst Media to use their sound room, and again, there were fees involved. With the DML, everyone who is affiliated with UMass can come to the Library to borrow audiovisual equipment for free, use the production room with no overhead, build and experience virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) without charge, and get their design 3D printed at a very low cost. I think it is fascinating.”
The interdisciplinary benefit is unquestionably mutual. The disparate projects that come out of the Digital Media Lab have included a water sensor that can be used to monitor the quality of water, especially in natural disaster zones around the world; a gravity light to help illuminate remote regions; PPE equipment; a virtual reality reconstruction of the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, complete with the house that was torn down decades ago and artifacts uncovered from the actual site in Great Barrington; and accessible science models for persons of all abilities.
Although the lab successfully served the entire UMass community for years on floor 3, according to Hutton, there was always a plan to move the DML to the Learning Commons on the Library’s lower level for more visibility and expansion opportunities.
“I really see the DML as the evolution of the Learning Commons—a space and place for students to engage in the creative transformation of library collections and ongoing research,” says Hutton. “Having the DML in close proximity to research support and connected to our Peer Leadership Program enables exploration beyond the traditional boundaries of academic work; students can engage with content in new ways and learn how to communicate within their communities, because the DML is now a part of that community, that centralized hub of support for students in the Learning Commons.”
To that end, over the past year, while the libraries were closed to most visitors, the former team-based learning classroom and a section of the Learning Commons
were transformed into a new and expanded Digital Media Lab.
“We have two new soundproof video production rooms, with interchangeable backgrounds (green screen or more traditional backdrops), large monitors, complete lighting arrangement,” explains Adam Quiros, DML desk supervisor and video project collaborator. “These rooms will also have a level of privacy that we could not previously offer, and we will have a dedicated workshop space with two large Promethean touch screens for training.”
As the DML staff settles into their new space, they plan to continue expanding their suite of services to the campus community. “The extended reality services will continue to grow, giving students and faculty the ability to create 3D virtual spaces and work on app development, says Acquah. “We will have holographic technology and professional equipment for video production as part of our instructional offerings and plan to develop a new web presence. We will continue to support the university community and the local community with access to the latest tools for digital media projects.”
Top photo: Rachjana Ny ’25 uses a tablet running an Augmented Reality (AR) application displaying the relative movement between the sun, earth, and the moon while providing a scaled comparison of those objects. Steve Acquah describes the relative motion of the objects.