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Bright ideas-- Notes from the Emerging Display Technology conference

Glaskowsky reports from Emerging Display Technology 2007

Yes, occasionally I'll be doing real news here that you won't see elsewhere. Maybe these pieces will earn me some links from other blogs, pushing my Technorati authority score above 5 and catapulting me into the ranks of the million most talked-about blogs. Well, I can hope. (If you do link to this entry, link to the version on my main blog here, or Technorati won't give me credit for it!)

Today I'm covering Emerging Display Technology 2007, an academic conference co-located with Siggraph 2007 this week in San Diego, CA. The research presented here runs the gamut (that's a little display pun there) from display design to practical applications.

I was only able to attend the conference for a few hours in the morning, since I had another conference to get to, but I saw several very interesting presentations.

The first presentation described the Allosphere, an amazing display system under development at CNSI (the California Nanosystems Institute) at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

The Allosphere is like a 10-meter (three-story-tall) movie screen with a seven-foot bridge through the center. The area of the screen is 320 square meters-- so it's like having an IMAX screen wrapped entirely around the viewers. It looks rather like the inside of Cerebro, the spherical computer in the X-Men movies, as UCSB's Tobias Höllerer noted in his presentation.

The Allosphere is designed to assist with various CNSI projects, including molecular design for nanotechnology, biological research, and neurology (one demo allows users to walk around inside a model of the brain of one of the researchers).

CNSI is still developing the Allosphere. So far it has four of the planned 14 projectors and 30 of the planned 425 speakers. Even so, CNSI is learning some interesting things. To avoid a situation where the images on some areas of the spherical screen reflect onto other areas, the screen surface is painted black-- dark gray, actually-- to eliminate directional (specular) reflections. Even so, there's so much light being projected that, when completed, the lighting will add up to 100,000 lumens (vs. 1,000 for a typical conference-room projector).

Daniel Stødle of the University of Tromsø in Norway presented the results of some research into adding large numbers of displays to a single PC-- in this case, an Apple MacBook Pro running Mac OS X. (The title of his talk was "The 22 Megapixel Laptop," which certainly caught my attention!) The goal of these researchers was to be able to connect "graphics walls"-- arrays of multiple large projector or flat-panel displays-- to a single computer over a fast network.

It turns out, for example, that Mac OS X can only support 32 displays. The primary display is one, and there's an invisible, unusable display device consisting of just one pixel that consumes another one of these 32-- so the hard limit is 30 additional displays.

The team had access to a wall of 28 displays, so that came in just under the limit. The Mac OS X user-interface features for multiple displays, however, have lower limits. The Displays Preferences window, for example, was unable to manage more than ten displays. The team had to write additional software to get around these limits.

The result is a laptop with its built-in display plus another 28 separate displays that create an extended desktop 7,168 x 3,072 pixels in size. (This means his "22 Megapixel Laptop" is probably not for you unless your lap is 20 feet wide and has plenty of AC power outlets.) Alas, it can only update all those screens very slowly-- about one frame per second, in fact, due to CPU performance limits given all the new software. Also, Stødle reports that finding the normal-sized cursor on the big screen can be difficult.

This project was designed to use one complete computer system driving each additional display, but to me, the obvious connection was to the new USB-connected monitors such as Samsung's SyncMaster 940UX that are supported in Microsoft's Windows Vista. Now that it's practical to connect large numbers of displays to one system, it's time for system software that can manage them.

Also interesting were some slides on displays with built-in image sensing-- think of an LCD or OLED display where some of the pixels are actually image sensors. But I'll talk more about that later. Tomorrow: on to Graphics Hardware 2007, where I'll be hosting one of the sessions.