Computer Language Facilitates Visualizations of Next-Generation Computing

Tuesday, October 5 2010

Written by Donna Emert

MOSCOW, Idaho – In the beginning there was "The Word."

Language, our species’ platform for almost all communication and comprehension, continues to evolve at the hands of computer programmers. Clinton Jeffery, associate professor of computer science at the University of Idaho, is at the forefront of that evolutionary process.

“Computer programs are written using languages that both the human and computer must understand,” said Jeffery. "Most programming languages cater to the computer, but gradually they are becoming easier and more powerful for the humans that use them."

Jeffery develops the Unicon language with a cross-institutional team hosted on an open source software site called

"For the Unicon programming language, I took the best language that I could find – Icon, from the University of Arizona – found some friends who could help, and made it better," he said.

Unicon was initially developed by Jeffery in collaboration with Shamim Mohamed, then a senior software engineer at Logitech, in California's Silicon Valley, and Federico Balbi, an undergraduate research assistant. Unicon's subsequent contributors include many current and former students, government and industry sponsors, and volunteers from the Internet.

“Unicon is particularly useful when programmer time is in short supply and when inventing new kinds of programs, particularly those with complex algorithms, text processing or graphics needs," said Jeffery.

A very high level, goal-directed, object-oriented, general purpose applications language, Unicon is available free of charge and has users around the globe. Its primary customers include the U.S. National Library of Medicine and AT&T Research.

Free, open source is an ideal way to foster multi-institutional collaboration and promote the programming ideas that the Unicon language embodies, Jeffery noted.

One advantage of the language is that it facilitates new graphical applications. “Invention of new kinds of visualizations are one of the areas where I have used Unicon,” Jeffery said. “Specifically, visualizing the behavior of programs while they are running, in order to understand or debug them.”

Combined with networking, visualizations and other 3D graphics can become powerful educational tools for tasks such as distance education.

“We are currently building a program in Unicon called CVE, or Collaborative Virtual Environment, that combines a multi-user 3D world with a set of tools for computer science education,” Jeffery said. “Compared with building education applications in an existing framework, such as Second Life, CVE allows us to integrate custom functionality that would be difficult to build elsewhere.”

Unicon Version 12 will be released later this fall. Jeffery and University of Idaho computer science doctoral student Jafar Al Gharaibeh worked this past summer to add concurrency to the language. Concurrency allows several computations to be executed simultaneously, and with the potential to interact.

“Modern computers have many processor cores, and programming languages have to make it easier for humans to use these many cores, or programmers won't be able to keep up,” said Jeffery.
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About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The student population of 12,302 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For more information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit