That the computer science professor's
work will help improve Greater Binghamton's economy is important.
The community is looking increasingly to the university to
contribute to redeveloping a metropolis that has decayed from its
glory days of a half-century ago. But this stuff -- manipulating
visual images to help train air-traffic controllers -- is just cool.
Binghamton University's forays into helping rebuild the economy
are about to get a lot cooler: The university will partner with
Endicott Interconnect Technologies to create new ways to package
electronics. Not just products that the former IBM microelectronics
plant can make, but new technologies that would ideally take the
entire industry a step further.
"We're laying out a whole series of projects," President Lois
DeFleur said. "We'll eventually have 30 faculty and up to 100
students at EIT."
Zhang's partnership with the Binghamton simulation company and
the larger project with the Endicott electronics manufacturer are
two critical connections to the community that Southern Tier leaders
say the university must pursue. And the university agrees.
"We need to have a thriving, growing community," DeFleur said. It
helps attract researchers and students, and a growing community
provides opportunities for spouses and family members.
The university is one element in a complex puzzle to build that
community, but it's one that can connect with Greater Binghamton in
* Its research can lead to products -- and entire companies --
that can employ people and bring investment.
* Its students and employees can bring new ideas and tens of
millions of dollars in cash to exchange off campus. That, in turn,
can create an environment that economic developers say is attractive
to the young professionals who will eventually dominate the economy.
* Its arts and athletics -- including its newly minted Division I
athletic program -- can provide entertainment to the community and
improve the quality of life.
But it's the research that developers look to most.
"We need them to truly become a community-oriented university,"
said Terrence Kane, Broome County's deputy executive, who was an
early author of the county's redevelopment plan. "It's not like
they're a business that's going to send jobs to China."
And the university needs to get off campus and have a very
visible presence in the community, said state Sen. Thomas W. Libous,
"That begins the process of improving economic development," he
said. "It shows companies other opportunities for expansion."
The partnership with Endicott Interconnect can fulfill both
goals. The goal is to create new technologies that local companies
can use to create new products in an industry that's being undercut
by low-cost foreign competition. Keeping the technological advantage
here, university executives suggest, means the jobs will stay here,
"Our primary interest is really creating the next generation of
materials and designs," said Baghat Sammakia, Binghamton
University's interim vice president for research and director of the
Integrated Electronics Engineering Center. "(SUNY) Albany might
build a sensor. To make a system out of it requires a different set
of techniques and research."
That's the larger picture behind the partnership. DeFleur and
Sammakia hope to spin the partnership -- which includes Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute -- into a state "Center for Excellence." The
state has clustered technology research into a variety of centers
across the state and plans to either spend or draw $1 billion in
funding for them.
The smaller picture is work such as Zhang's. His work on four
different projects can draw business to Binghamton. And that means
The simulator project is a prime example. Diamond Visionics wants
to design a simulator to train air-traffic controllers. The idea is
to put the trainee in a room that looks exactly like an airport's
control tower -- complete with the view outside the window. Getting
the view would seem simple: Take a photograph and project it onto
the wall. But the simulator would mimic the different times of day,
the weather conditions, the planes and other vehicles moving around
the airport. So before all those elements, called time-specific
objects, can be added into the simulation, they have to be taken out
of the picture.
"Putting the objects in is Diamond Visionics' job. The first
task, making the image and removing the time-specific objects --
that's my job," Zhang said.
The commercial applications go well beyond air-traffic control.
The next steps could be to apply the same technologies to moving
simulators, such as for flying or driving. It could even someday be
used in video games.
Zhang and Diamond Visionics completed the first phase of the Air
Force-funded research, the proof of concept, several months ago. The
second phase, creating a viable product, starts this week.
Getting the research dollars, which act as seed corn for
reinvestment, hasn't always been easy for Binghamton University.
While it got about $25 million in research grants last year, and
expects that figure to grow 10 percent to 12 percent a year for the
next several years, it's still behind the other three SUNY centers.
Buffalo is an older institution with a medical school attached, and
Stony Brook was always intended as an engineering-oriented facility
that would do the kind of research that brings big grants, DeFleur
said. So perhaps they're not the best comparisons.
The university she feels is a better comparison, the University
of California at Santa Cruz, approached $80 million in research
grants in the last fiscal year, but like Binghamton, has averaged
about 11 percent growth for the past five years.
Still, it's a competitive world, and Binghamton had to redouble
efforts to get the grants as other university centers pulled ahead.
Buffalo and Albany were designated Centers of Excellence, and
attention -- as well as money -- was focused on them.
Part of Binghamton University's difficulty, DeFleur said, was the
number of applications BU applied for alone. She asked officials in
Gov. George E. Pataki's office what the problem was.
"They said we need to get some more partners," DeFleur said.
That's where Endicott Interconnect and Rensselaer Polytechnic come
"They've had some good partnerships," Libous said, but needed
more. "We knew the opportunities EIT under local management could
bring to this community."
Libous lobbied for $15 million under the state's Gen*NY*Sys
program for biotechnology research and development as a "plan B" to
winning a Center for Excellence, he said. But that money pales in
comparison to the tens of millions a center could provide.
The university will combine its partnerships with the Innovative
Technologies Complex it plans to open using the $15 million
Gen*NY*Sys funding, DeFleur said. The opportunities the effort
creates will, ideally, lead to a cascade of new research.
But BU will still need facilities, on campus and off, to grow,
DeFleur said, and it will need money for equipment and professors
and all the ingredients of a research university. It expects to
spend nearly $500 million for new facilities during the next decade.
"We need professional opportunities. We need quality of life. We
need infrastructure out in the community," DeFleur said.
And that will take time. Before the university can become a
Center for Excellence, Libous said, it must first show success with
the Gen*NY*Sys investment.
"We should accomplish the attainable things first," he said.
Until then, Zhang and his 10 assistants will continue with his
projects in simulation, computerized video stabilization to improve
surveillance technology, visual indexing and a study of data mining
that can help the government and businesses link seemingly unrelated
It's pretty complex stuff until you see it in action, but Zhang
can point out the opportunities for investment each one creates. And
with each project, his excitement grows and his foot jiggles.