The university's Scientific Computing and Visualization Group recently opened a new front in the techno revolution: creating oversized and extremely detailed 3D images out of reams of data and mathematical models to better study phenomena such as solar wind, electrical pulses or particle interaction.
On a 7.5-by-10-foot screen, dubbed the Deep Vision Display Wall, researchers generate larger-than-life simulations of DNA strands or chemical reactions. The screen is powered by an IBM supercomputer containing 96 Power 4 processors capable of performing 500 billion calculations per second. Wide-screen TV it's not.
"It's a mechanism for new discoveries," said Glenn Bresnahan, adjunct professor and director of the Computing and Visualization Group. "You can go into areas where you normally just couldn't go. You can get visual experiences that you just couldn't get in any other way."
Just as important, the system's total costs are less than $3 million, making it a relative bargain.
Though scientists have long used computers to run virtual experiments and map new areas of research, such as human DNA, until now it was not technically or financially practical to turn the results of an experiment into anything more than a small 3D image.
The hardware needed to generate giant 3D pictures can still fill a room, but it's getting much cheaper now than it has ever been thanks to the advent of the Linux operating system and low-cost, rack-mountable servers.
"I don't know if four or five years ago (this) would have been reasonable to do," Bresnahan said.
The setup uses the same principles as those employed by an old 3D movie theater, Bresnahan said. Indeed, the system comes complete with red-and-blue-lensed glasses.
The experience, though, is a world apart. During a demonstration of how a pacemaker interacts with a patient's tissues, a giant rib cage appears on the screen. Inside are a heart and a green rectangle representing the pacemaker. Webs of red, yellow and blue lines extend from the device, showing how electrical currents travel through the tissues of the chest. By observing the currents, researchers can easily determine the best location for the device.
In another demonstration, a viewer is suddenly thrust into the middle of a school of sharks. After a minute or two, one of the sharks darts straight toward the viewer, turning away at the last instant.
IBM, which provided much of the hardware that goes into the display, thinks Boston University has shown that giant, immersive 3D displays could be valuable not only as a research tool but also as a way to develop new products.
Over time, the company believes, visualization of experimental data will be used to help companies such as automakers design better products more quickly, said Tom Haine, head of IBM's eServer education segment.
"With visualization you can blow (the experiment) up and take a much better look at it from...all angles" even before committing the design to paper, Haine said. When looking at an airplane wing design, he said, "you can go to the point of applying forces to it like wind, air pressure."
About 700 BU researchers in various disciplines will be able to use the Deep Vision Display to conduct research in areas ranging from mechanical design to genetics, particle physics to health care.
Inter-organ travel on a budget
To be sure, the technology that went into building the Deep Vision Display is costly, but it's much less expensive than its predecessors. While BU's Deep Vision Display relies on the university's new $2.5 million p690 supercomputer to crunch the data necessary to create the 3D images, a collection of less-expensive machines perform supporting tasks.
A cluster of 52 dual-processor IBM X330 Linux servers renders and manipulates the images, while 24 workstations serve to direct eight projectors, which create the image. Each of the eight NEC liquid-crystal display (LCD) projectors costs about $4,500. In all, this extra equipment costs about $300,000.
IBM donated most of the hardware being used by BU, but almost any large company could put together a similar system from similar hardware.
"This technology is inexpensive enough so that it could certainly end up in (company) labs, and it could get to the point in the future where it could end up in houses," Bresnahan said.
While BU has now proven that the Deep Vision Display works--despite the fact that the concept was thought impossible by some--the university still has a lot of work to do to increase the system's resolution and boost the ability of researchers to interact with the images.
The Scientific Computing and Visualization Group will soon increase the size of the display to 15 feet by 8 feet and increase the number of projectors from eight to 24. The extra projectors will boost image resolution to 18 megapixels, allowing even more granular detail.
The group also plans to install a system of video cameras that will allow researchers to interact with and control the display using devices like a magic-wand mouse, Bresnahan said. Currently, the display is controlled via a PC. Additionally, the lab will port its software from Unix to Linux.
But the group's most daunting task will be adding features that allow researchers to manipulate their experiments on the fly, essentially changing the experiment from within.
"The software is certainly not trivial, but the bigger challenge is having enough supercomputing power and network bandwidth behind the model--getting enough hardware behind it so you can update the model in real time."
Ultimately, the technology will move from the lab to the commercial market. IBM believes that if the current trend continues, 3D visualization technology will proliferate among large companies, such as automakers, in as little as five years.
"This could be a microcosm for the kind of interactive media and development work that would move from academia into the commercial space," said Brad Day, an analyst at Giga Information Group. The key to that migration, he said, is being able to bundle large numbers of low-cost computers as BU has done with its Linux cluster.
"I think it'll start getting more widely adopted as it becomes easier to do" with the availability of faster computers, Bresnahan said.
And at some point in the not-too-distant future, the technology is also likely to work its way to the consumer market, where immersive 3D videos or games might play in people's living rooms.
An inventive person might even create a rudimentary 3D system out of a pair of projectors and a small screen. That system, Bresnahan said, would cost about $15,000.
And if you saved the cardboard glasses from your most recent viewing of "It Came from Outer Space," you could shave a dollar or two off the total.