The Visual World Investigate Lab

Directed by Matthew Faerber and located in Raleigh, North Carolina in the new Nature Research Center (a part of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences) the Visual World Investigate Lab (aka VisLab) is highly experimental and is not easily defined. It is a Maker Space, it is public outreach tool, it is a class room for children and teachers, it is free, it is visited by about 2,000 people a month, and it is open every day. It teaches science using scientific visualization techniques such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and GIS. The VisLab encourages kids to learn how to code and build with impromptu electronics demonstrations and classes. It boasts many different type of software and hardware technologies such as augmented reality, GIS, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, robotics, 3D modeling, and 3D printing. Its’ formal goal is to teach science and how science is done.

"Its’ informal goal is to encourage as many children as possible to become the next great scientists and inventors by demystifying the world of science, programming, and electronics."

The first thing you notice when you see the lab are the dozen computer stations, with screens attached to specialized metal structures that Matthew designed in Google Sketchup. These stations are a mix of programs developed in the lab and programs that are free for all, such as online citizen science programs. The rest of the lab is taken up by a electronics works space (aka Maker Space) that backs up to his workstation. This space contains electronic gadgets and robots that he has built with the goals of drawing kids in, getting them excited about technology, and sending them (and their parents!) home with information about how they can learn to make things on their own. It is a very flexible and informal space with many low tables where little kids can build circuits and bigger kids can engage in in-depth discussions with staff about everything from programming to robot sensors.

Since its’ opening in 2011 the lab has grown and evolved in unexpected directions in order to best serve the needs of the local populace. As a result of his achievements Matthew have been interviewed online, on local TV, in local papers, and has been invited on several trips including to Beijing, China where he took part in a week-long science festival. More about his trips can be read on the travels page.

"The VisLab has a very bright future with many new programs, robots, and classes currently under development."

How was the Lab created?

In December of 2011 Matthew was hired as the first coordinator of VisLab, which is in effect a director level position. At the time the space was still under construction (as was the entire building). The name of the lab was chosen beforehand, as was a general idea of how it would teach science, but the rest was up to him. He had about four months to come up with ideas and create the exhibits. It was close, but by the special 24-hour opening event, he had a dozen exhibits fillings most of the space.

Shortly after starting Matthew knew he had to decide on technologies that would really hook kids and encourage them to spend as much time as possible in the lab. It wasn't long before he settled on learning how to creating programs that use augmented reality (AR). Matthew chose AR because he had a strong belief that it was currently underutilized, but would eventually have a very large influence on our future. Using AR he can make topics that are not interesting to most children fun to learn about. This is because AR can be used to create the illusion that you are holding the world, or a dinosaur, or anything else. His assumption has proven itself correct time and time again as even the most jaded of kids perk up when they realize they can do things like create molecules or follow storms in their hands.

After creating the programs it became clear to him that ordinary computer setups would not suffice because he wanted to create the illusion that people were actually holding impossible items in their hands without thinking about the fact that they were interacting with a computer. To accomplish this he designed a special frame to hold the computer screens in a 3D modeling program and then proceeded to create several wooden versions in the manufacturing shop. The end result is the simplest design he could come up with to hold the monitors and not distract the user from what they are doing.

About six months after opening it became clear to Matthew that a certain percentage of visitors to the lab were not interested in interacting with computer screens, which at that point, was all he had. So he had to come up with a new idea. That idea ended up being electronics and robotics, which were not already represented much in the museum. So Matthew set off learning how to build gadgets and robots using the most popular and promising technologies, such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi. The end result was a small Maker Space in the lab with low lying tables so that even small children could participate in learning how to build circuits and interact with everything. For many children the maker space is the most popular part of the lab and since then it has grown considerably in size.

Lab Location, Hours

The Visual World Investigate Lab is located on the 3rd floor of the Nature Research Center, the newest wing of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC.

121 W Jones St, Raleigh, NC, 27601

Hours Open to the Public:

M 1-4, Tues 10-4, Wed 10-4, Thrs 10-1, Fri 10-4, Sat 10-4, Sun 1-4

Note: May be closed on Thursdays and Fridays during the school year for classes.