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 Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Caudell and the Meeting of Minds


If you could see through to the many interesting layers of Professor Thomas Preston Caudell's personality, in one of them you would find an astrophysicist.

That was Caudell's doctoral degree at the University of Arizona at Tucson. However, the fascination with things like infinity and the Milky Way that brought him to that doctoral degree was redirected after his post-graduate stints at Hughes Research Labs and Boeing.

Now he wants to know what's going on inside your brain.

Prof. Caudell
Prof. Caudell.

Caudell with students.
Prof. Caudell sits with three of his students in UNM's Visualization Lab. They can monitor their work on the wall-sized rear-projection screen behind them.

One of Caudell's inspirations is from a 1937 lecture by Sir Charles Sherrington. In it, Sherrington describes the brain "as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the brain becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns."

"I got interested in virtual reality because I wanted to be able to visualize brain-like circuits," Caudell says.

In 2003, Caudell told an IEEE reporter "I am very interested in how brains work as a model for artificial neural systems. I want to be able to design, analyze, and simulate systems with brains designed on the principles of biology."1

Another clue to what fascinates Caudell came when he told that reporter that "I've always liked interdisciplinary areas. Moving into the gaps between disciplines really forces you to learn new things."

Joining the faculty at ECE in 1994 gave him a chance, and an ever-growing one, to give free rein not only to his interest in artificial neural systems, but also to those collaborative research instincts.

The Enchanted Loom

A quick review of his background shows that Caudell earned bachelor's degrees in math and, with honors, physics from California State University at Pomona in 1973. He went on to complete his Ph.D. in physics in 1980. After graduating, Caudell took a position as senior staff physicist at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, where he led the labs' neural networks project and started their first virtual reality project.
Caudell at HPC center
UNM named Prof. Caudell director of the Center for High Performance Computing beginning Feb. 1, 2007.

He then took a position as senior principal scientist and principal investigator of Boeing Computer Services' Adaptive Neural Systems Research and Development project in Seattle. He was involved with the initial efforts to apply virtual-reality technology to Boeing's manufacturing and engineering processes.

Caudell's work for Boeing got him started on a several-years-long journey of developing a complex software program that creates a virtual laboratory to study brain data and simulations.

Called Flatland after Edwin Abbott's 1884 novella, that program now supports a number of research projects at UNM's Center for High Performance Computing.

One example is a project called Telehealth Outreach for Unified Community Health, or Project TOUCH, that's being used to train student physicians. Affiliated with UNM's Health Sciences Center and the University of Hawaii, Project TOUCH seeks to close gaps in healthcare education, training and performance by using advanced computing and the next-generation Internet.

Another of the software tools Caudell developed, eLoom, is a network graph simulator he and his colleagues use to study brain-like circuits and systems. eLoom, which can be visualized in Flatland, got its name from the enchanted loom in Sir Sherrington's 1937 lecture.

Despite the popularity today of things like online multiplayer games, there are still many technical challenges in creating collaborative virtual environments. Especially when they are used to address the rigorous demands of medical simulation, network intrusion detection, or a system's adaptation to different uses

With longtime colleague and ECE Research Professor Michael Healy, Caudell is using theory, simulation and virtual environments to understand how brains work. Their work includes research into mathematical models that show how artificial neural networks can be used to represent the semantics of cognition.

Virtual Seeing Can Amplify Seeing

One application of Caudell's virtual reality and visualization work is to help scientists and engineers better understand their software systems and data. He created UNM's Visualization Lab in 1998 to advance the science of visualization and virtual environments so they can more effectively amplify human comprehension. Limits in our ability to comprehend the content of complex theories and simulations make it harder to apply computational research.

"With conventional human-computer interfaces," Caudell says, "scientists remain separated from their software and data, with the computer screen, keyboard and mouse acting as a recalcitrant intermediary. New human-computer interfaces must be developed that allow humans and machines to do what they each do best."

For example, Caudell and his students in this "viz lab" often work with the university's ARTS Lab (Art, Research, Technology & Science), which has been referred to as a confluence of art and technology with an emphasis on computation. Directed by Computer Science Prof. Ed Angel, the ARTS Lab was created in 2005 in response to Gov. Bill Richardson's Media Industries Strategic Plan. "Its goal is to help develop the unique capablities the university has in digital media," Caudell says. "It's part art, part engineering....We want to train students so they'll be able to work in those areas here in New Mexico."

Besides its applications to the state's growing film industry, the ARTS Lab's multidisciplinary network of campus talent is applying various art forms as media for analyzing complex, abstract data.
Caudell is also part of a foursome in ECE and Computer Science who are expanding curricula and research in computational graphic arts and visualization. The other cornerstones of the foursome are ECE Prof. Pradeep Sen and two Computer Science faculty members, Prof. Angel and Visiting Prof. Joe Kniss. Both Caudell and Sen have joint appointments in Computer Science, and Angel has a joint appointment in ECE.
Unlike the human brain, the brains of the Center for High Performance Computing are large enough for Prof. Caudell to stand inside of.

One of the foursome's venues is the new Advanced Graphics Lab, launched last year, which is dedicated to research in computer graphics, visualization, imaging and computer vision. Resource centers like this lab and the ARTS Lab, according to Caudell, are "seeding collaborations between the digital arts and digital sciences, forming places where people like that can rub shoulders." They assemble resources and expertise from a variety of disciplines that don't typically converge.

For students, interdisciplinary courses result, such as the new game development class that Caudell and Angel are teaching this semester with Computer Science's digital storytelling expert Carolyn Miller. "Writing code is a small part of it," Caudell says. "Successful game development involves story, action, narrative, game mechanics, 2D and 3D art models, scenes and sound — these fuzzy, semi-quantitative things are all important to the success of a game and have not been traditionally considered part of an engineering curriculum."

Collaboratories Broaden Results

Collaborations like these among UNM faculty helped lead to Sony Pictures Imageworks' February 2 announcement that UNM has been named a member of Imageworks Professional Academic Excellence program. Other IPAX members include Stanford, USC, Carnegie-Mellon and MIT. UNM, however, has the only membership given to an entire university. "At the other universities, only individual schools or departments are members" said Christopher Mead, Dean of the College of Fine Arts, in UNM's February 6 press release. "Because the program that we're creating is so interdisciplinary, this was the only way we could join."

"Sony has found that students coming out of universities are too narrow in their training and specializations," said Mead, whereas Sony needs "people who are interdisciplinary in their ability to understand both the science and the art of visual image generation....What excited the people at Imageworks was that we were doing exactly what they were looking for."

Another testament to Caudell's ability to foster "collaboratories" — both virtual and face-to-face — is his recent appointment to direct UNM's Center for High Performance Computing, a role that began February 1. Because his work with visualization and neural networks is dependant on high-performance computing, Caudell has been actively involved with CHPC since its beginnings in 1994.

Prof. Caudell used his cell phone to take this photo of Gov. Bill Richardson visiting the ARTS Lab during the Jan. 19 launch of LambdaRail in New Mexico.

As the CHPC website points out, computation is a critical tool in research, scholarship and creative activity in all academic disciplines. The center supports faculty-led, computing-based research throughout UNM, and the center's staff foster interdisciplinary collaborations based on computation. Tim Thomas is the center's deputy director.

UNM's virtual collaboratories made another big stride forward in January when New Mexico launched its connection to LambdaRail, the national, ultra-high-speed network of research centers. CHPC hosted the kickoff with keynote speaker Gov. Richardson on January 19.

Caudell has been professionally active in the field of virtual reality and neural networks since 1986 and has more than 75 publications in these areas. His research interests include neural networks, virtual reality, machine vision, robotics and genetic algorithms. He teaches courses in programming, computer games, neural networks, virtual reality, computer graphics and pattern recognition. In 1993, he helped organize IEEE's first Virtual Reality Annual International Symposium, which continues to be a successful annual symposium.

And he still gazes, fascinated, into deep, mysterious space — sometimes even upward into the night sky.
He can be reached virtually by addressing an e-mail message to

1. IEEE monthly newspaper The Institute, Oct. 1, 2003, "New Mexico Professor Creates Software for Virtual Worlds"
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