This Week in Viz – 7/31/2009

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Randall Hand from, the web’s best site dedicated to computer graphics and scientific visualization, recap’s the week‘s best stories related to supercomputing in the visualization and graphics industries.  This week he talks about popular web services being used for geospatial reconstructions and flu trends, some of the big news at SIGGRAPH, and massively parallel volume visualization at Argonne.

Quick Picks:

Argonne Researchs go extreme in parallel

Over at Argonne, researchers are setting new records for interactive visualization of large datasets with volume-renderings of 80-billion voxels from an astrophysics dataset.  What’s particularly surprising is that the entire process is being run distributed in parallel on the IBM Blue/Gene, without GPU Accelerators.

Argonne researchers wanted to know if they could improve performance by skipping the transfer to the GPUs and instead performing the visualizations right there on the supercomputer. They tested the technique on a set of astrophysics data and found that they could indeed increase the efficiency of the operation.

“We were able to scale up to large problem sizes of over 80 billion voxels per time step and generated images up to 16 megapixels,” said Tom Peterka, a postdoctoral appointee in Argonne’s Mathematics and Computer Science Division.

3.6GB of Terrain Data in Realtime, on a Desktop

On the GameDev forums, a user by the name of “sylvestre” has posted code and videos of a project he developed to allow real-time visualization of 3.6GB of terrain data.

I finally made a demo version of the software I used in this post. If you have enough space and time to download 3.6GB of terrain data, you may try it on your PC (warning: it has only been tested on Windows XP, with an NVIDIA GeForce 7900 or 8800). The demo is available here:

Otherwise you can see some High Quality videos here (made with more precise data and more realistic shaders – 16GB terrain, clouds, shadows, procedural details):

He’s using data from the Nasa Earth Observatory, which offers 500 meter/pixel resolution, and the STRM v4 from CIAT, which offers 90m per pixel.  Very impressive stuff.  See a video of the system in use (running at 150fps) at VizWorld.

More info on the SGI, NSF, PSC Saga

It’s been two weeks since we first broke the news of the deal between SGI and NSF for a 1-PetaFlop $30M computer going in at Pittsburg Supercomputing Center.  I’ve heard a few more things from reliable sources, and wanted to update the story.

Once it was plain that SGI wasn’t going to ship the $30M system, the NSF seemed to take it a bit personally.  They then began contacting other government agencies and NSF groups that were considering purchasing SGI systems and began “recommending” (”requiring” where they could) that they consider backup plans in the event that SGI filed for bankruptcy again.  Ouch. A bit below-the-belt, given that the Rackable deal hasn’t even really settled yet, but effective.

SGI has re-entered negotiations with PSC and NSF to deliver something. It definately won’t be a $30M 1-Petaflop machine, but it’ll probably hit at least one of those numbers (either a lower-powered $30M machine, or a much more expensive 1-Petaflop machine).  For now, it seems that the dust has settled and all parties are playing nice again, if not a little bit relunctantly.

Hopefully we’ll be able to post some news about a big SGI going in somewhere soon.

Formal Investigation into Tiled LCDs vs Blended Projectors

Over the last several years, Tiled Displays have slowly transitioned from costly blended-projection systems to LCD walls.  The LCD walls are typically cheaper to build and maintain, but the bezels are a common source of complaints.  Two visualization professors at Texas A&M University are finally going to settle the debate between the two technologies to see if there really is any perceivable benefit to one vs the other.

McNamara and Parke are in the right place to do the research, they say. Texas A&M’s Halbouty Geosciences Building houses the Immersive Visualization Center (IVC), a 25-foot by 8-foot curved screen that uses three rear projectors to provide a seamless display. The IVC provides advanced visualization capabilities to researchers at Texas A&M through its capability to display images of very large datasets from disciplines such as geophysics, life and physical sciences, engineering and architecture.  During the study, in addition to showing test subjects the IVC’s seamless images, the researchers will use the IVC’s software to introduce seams into the images measuring .75, 1.25 and 2.50 inches wide.

“We want to ascertain if the physical presence of seams actually aids performance,” said McNamara. The researchers will be able to compare any differences viewers experience with the 1.25-inch virtual seams test subjects encounter on the IVC display.

If their hypothesis is proven correct, researchers and educators in many fields, said McNamara, can proceed with the knowledge that using the far more affordable flat-panel screen system will provide viewers with the same experience as the high-end, seamless displays.

I look forward to seeing the results when the study is finished.  Read the full article on VizWorld.

NOAA builds Spherical Information displays

What do you get when you mix a beach ball with a bunch of projectors and a few NOAA visualization scientists?  You get ‘Science on a Sphere’, as the visuals are projected onto the sphere to allow true visualization of the earth’s surface.  Controlled by a Wii-mote, it projects a 4000×2000 display onto the 68-inch sphere showing ocean currents, atmospheric temperatures, population trends, and anything else you can think of.

The software is written to support any number of projectors, but the zoo’s setup is typical, following NOAA’s recommendations for equipment. It uses four high-end Sony projectors that provide a resolution of 72 dots per inch on the sphere. These are aligned every morning to keep the images in sync. Each projector is controlled by a Dell Precision T3400 workstation running Red Hat Linux. A fifth T3400 hosts the content for the sphere and controls the other four computers. There is a Bluetooth connection on the control computer for the Wii Remote.

The system costs only $165,00 0and software is already available from NOAA to run on it, making it a pretty useful tool on day 1.