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Going to work is fun for Marshalltown native Tyler Bell

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Tyler Bell works in his office at the University of Iowa College of Engineering where he is an assistant professor.

IOWA CITY – Marshalltown native Tyler Bell is making his mark in the world of electrical and computer engineering and having a blast doing it.

“My research shares a lot of the same underlying technology with video games,” he said. “Let’s just say it is fun to come to work every day.”

Bell is a tenure-track assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Iowa.

Just this year students in the UI College of Engineering, the Iowa 3D Club and the Holo Reality Lab partnered with the Science Center of Iowa (SCI) in Des Moines to collaborate on an outreach project geared toward developing a large-scale augmented reality (AR) sandbox.

Made popular by researchers at University of California Davis, AR sandboxes allow for hands-on experimentation and play in sand while dynamic and interactive 3D visualizations, projected on top of the sand, make the sandbox come to life with teaching illustrations, such as elevation maps and water simulations.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Tyler Bell talks with Nick Gorman, a University of Iowa undergraduate research assistant and electrical engineering student in the Holo Reality Lab at the university in Iowa City

In this outreach project, Iowa students helped develop and implement the hardware and software necessary to bring a custom-built, large-scale AR sandbox to the “What on Earth?” room as a permanent exhibit at the Science Center.

Bell said the original idea was to create an AR sandbox and take it to the science center, but after meeting with science center officials, his students soon found out that the Des Moines based center wanted to repurpose an old river bed exhibit that had sprung a leak.

“The project became very real — very quick,” Bell said. “In our collaboration, we aimed to repurpose the old river bed into a large scale AR sandbox. We started our planning with simple measurements and a 3D scan so that we could remotely design our structure. The original 3D scan taken on our first visit to SCI helped the students digitally design and model how this structure would look once it was installed at SCI.

“The student-led 3D club is a collection of students in all sorts of departments that are coming together and building things for specific problems,” Bell said. “The team decided there was a need to expand their 3D-printing technology beyond its current uses. The expansion of the club involved introducing a whole other portion of 3D that is not 3D printing — 3D imaging, virtual reality, and augmented reality.”

As an assistant professor, Bell said the biggest challenge is time management.

“In this position I am not defined as being one thing. I am a teacher, I research ideas, write papers and perform research, among other daily tasks. Balancing time is challenging — but challenges are good. The opportunities we have here at Iowa makes my job enjoyable,” he said.

Bell was born and raised in Marshalltown. He graduated from Marshalltown High School and Marshalltown Community College. Bell then attended Iowa State University from 2010-2012 and received a bachelors of science degree in computer science.

He continued his education at Iowa State from 2012-2014 and got his master of science degree in human computer interaction. Following this he went attended Purdue University from 2015-2018, earning a Ph.D. in computer engineering.

“I started my role as an assistant professor in August of 2018. As a professor at Iowa, I teach several courses and direct a research lab. My current research focuses on 3D measurement, 3D communications, virtual reality and augmented reality.

“This research has been used in many applications in fields such as medicine, entertainment, accessibility, forensic science and the arts. People often comment that the research looks like something out of Star Wars, and I always take that as a compliment,” Bell said.

He and his wife Melanie, who graduated from West Marshall High School and attended the University of Northern Iowa, were very happy to be given the opportunity to establish a family back in their home state. Melanie also works at the University of Iowa as a talent acquisition specialist for the Division of Student Life. The couple have a two-year-old daughter, Natalie, who attends preschool on the University of Iowa campus.

“Together, we are a little Hawkeye family with backgrounds at both ISU and UNI, so we consider ourselves to be wholehearted Iowans,” Bell said, laughing.