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In the new ECE building, a specially designed lab space gives students an opportunity to develop as both engineers and musicians.
The new music lab, located in 3024 ECE Building, is more than double the size of the previous space in Everitt Lab.
Lippold Haken, an ECE lecturer, is excited that ECE 402, Electronic Music Synthesis, has two lab stations for students to work on instead of one. Now, the class is set up in a room that is acoustically isolated from the rest of the building. The upgrade creates an environment that is much more conducive to the music making process than what was previously available.
“In Everitt Lab, we had a small room that we had retrofitted with acoustic carpet on the wall, and we could only put one station in there,” Haken said.
Students now have the opportunity to schedule more convenient times in the lab. At Everitt, there was an issue of students having to schedule after midnight in order to secure lab time, but the new space has created much more availability for students.
Lab time is a crucial aspect of the class because it gives students the opportunity to actually work with the sound equipment. All of the equipment found in the lab stations is also used in the movie and gaming industries.
“Sound design can mean a lot of different things,” Haken said. “In a lot of cases, the sound designer is a person who selects the best sounding recording and mixes it in. It can also mean something much more extreme like when a sound designer creates new sound algorithms.”
The devices in the music lab are meant to challenge students. Haken hopes students walk away from the class with greater understanding that engineering isn’t always about finding ways to make things easy. Creating music with a synthesizer should be a challenging process that requires a lot of time and effort, just like creating music with an acoustic instrument.
“Engineers have worked really hard to make musicians’ jobs easier,” Haken said. “This has worked to an extent, but it’s also had the negative effect of deskilling people. It has made it almost so easy that you can replace the musicians with a synthesizer. At that point, you also lose something. You have to be pretty hard of hearing to not be able to tell the difference between an orchestra and synthesizer.”
Since joining the class, junior Molly Pace has enjoyed the opportunity to explore her musical interests, and said that the lab time has really helped her solidify its concepts. She decided to take the class after she saw Haken do a demonstration in ECE 110 of one of the most innovative items in the music lab: the Continuum Fingerboard.
Haken invented the Continuum Fingerboard and said that many students are attracted to the class because of the opportunity to work with the instrument. While students won’t have enough time to master the instrument, they will get a chance to experiment with it.
ECE 402 currently has about 60 students each semester, which makes it one of the largest technical classes of its type in the world. However, Haken would like to build a larger culture around the new music lab and develop students toward becoming even more passionate about the music they create.
“I want to attract even more students who will spend time with the art,” Haken said. “It’s hard for students to have free time, but to actually pursue art is something that I think is very important in modern society.”
In some ways, completing the new ECE Building and populating a circuit board are rather alike. Both require the right components in the proper orientation. For the circuit board, these components include microprocessors, capacitors, micromachined sensors, and the like. For the new ECE building, they include the people who joined the department in the building campaign, offering financial support.
To recognize those donors in perpetuity, an art installation has been mounted between the lobby and the first-floor lecture halls. It resembles a wall-sized circuit board, measuring more than 18 feet long and 8 feet tall. The center features the motto, “Imagine. Built. Lead,” thoughts that have echoed through the building campaign. Around it are the names of major supporters.
“The reason we used the circuit-board design is, we thought of the donors as components,” said J. Todd Hearn, the university graphic designer who, along with Brandon Christie at Dean’s Graphics, conceptualized the donor wall. “When we came up with the circuit board, it was just, ‘Ah ha!’”
The wall has been designed in two layers. The background is the enlarged circuit board, with copper film on rectangular tiles of acrylic glass. The outer layer, elevated on aluminum standoffs, uses congruent rectangles, also in clear acrylic, which offer a clear view of the circuit pattern beneath. Interspersed within these are frosted rectangles with the names of the donors written in raised bronze lettering.
“Alumni and friends have played an essential role in ensuring that the new ECE Building is a state-of-the-art reality,” said Steven George, the senior director of advancement at ECE ILLINOIS. “We couldn’t have accomplished such an ambitious project—complete with net-zero energy features—without their support.”
The cost for the building, including furnishings and lab equipment, amounts to $95 million. Half of the funding came from the State of Illinois, while the other half has come from individual and corporate supporters. Already, the building is proving to be an academic and social hub for students, with new features ranging from a host of instructional labs lab to ample collaboration spaces.
The copper on the wall was fabricated using a die-cutter, which punches out the pieces using a custom-made blade, rather like an automated, super-sized cookie cutter. The pattern is based on a section of an actual circuit board designed by Skot Wiedmann, an instrument and measurement technician in ECE’s Electronics Services Shop. He used the board in an audio processing unit for electronic music, which he designed as a graduate student.
“I do try to approach these designs as both and artist and an engineer, so the aesthetics are important to me,” Weidmann said. “I actually still use [the processing unit] occasionally.”
According to Hearn, this donor recognition design may be the first of its kind. Neither he nor Christie had seen a wall-sized circuit board like this, and they were particularly pleased with the idea of using copper in the design. Not only is the building a vanguard accomplishment, but even this donor recognition wall is an innovation.
“Illinois always likes to be the first,” Hearn said.
Many still dream of the Jetsonian age where humanoid robots are chopping onions in the kitchen, vacuuming the stairs, and watering the philodendron.
While that technology isn’t quite here, already, robots are a part of our lives—even machines with physical, articulating arms. They’re in car factories, affixing parts of the chassis. They’re in medical research labs, sorting petri dishes and filling vials.
In the laboratory for ECE 470, Introduction to Robotics, around 60 students each year get a chance to work with robots like this. In the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building, they are doing so in the control systems suite on the third floor, where the lab benches are equipped with cameras on overhead mounts and robotic arms. With this setup, the camera collects information about objects (often colored blocks) on the work surface, and the arm is then programmed to move and organize them.
“It’s a stepping stone,” said Dan Block, the teaching lab specialist who manages the equipment in the control systems labs. “It’sthe first thing you have to do in robotics, besides the math beforehand.”
The robotic arms are relatively simple, at least compared to those used in factories, but for the students, the teaching setup works well. It is robust and reliable, even if the arm movements don’t have millimeter precision like some industrial equipment.
“We like them because they can take a beating,” Block said. “There are some newer ones out there for education that I’m looking at, but I’m still a little leery of how durable they’re going to be.”
The lab is also equipped with one industrial-grade arm, a recent addition, equivalent to those sometimes used at semiconductor companies to sort and count parts. It will be used for special projects with students, as well as for demonstrations.
The curriculum in the introductory course focuses on the mathematics underlying robotic systems. Given the angles and length of the arms, the students generate algebraic matrices that determine how the elbows should bend, so the rubber claw at the end of the arm can reach and grasp its target.
“There’s math involved with taking the coordinate system of the camera and converting it to the coordinate system of the robot arm,” Block said. “They’re messy matrices. For that reason, you really can’t do it by hand because you would make a lot of mistakes. So we have these packages —Mathematica and Matlab — that generate these matrices.”
Introduction to Robotics is also offered through the departments of Computer Science, Mechanical Science and Engineering, and Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering. ECE Professor Seth Hutchison serves as the course director and is also the co-author of the course textbook, Robot Modeling and Control (Wiley), which is popularly used in engineering programs across the country.
After mastering this introductory content, ECE students can go onto other control-system or mechatronics courses and continue learning about robotic applications. And some students — especially those seniors with graduation close at hand — could find a speedy route into industry, where robots like this, though different from the one dusting for George and Jane, are nonetheless a part of daily life.