100 million pixels of virtual reality

It's ironic that Iowa State University (ISU) announced a big upgrade of its C6 virtual reality (VR) room the same day as SGI filed for bankruptcy. Back in 2000, this 10x10x10 feet room was powered by SGI Onyx2 computers. The new version of this six-sided VR room will now use 96 graphics processing units from Hewlett-Packard.

It's ironic that Iowa State University (ISU) announced a big upgrade of its C6 virtual reality (VR) room the same day as SGI filed for bankruptcy. Back in 2000, this 10x10x10 feet room was powered by SGI Onyx2 computers. The new version of this six-sided VR room will use 96 graphics processing units from Hewlett-Packard. And with its 24 Sony digital projectors, the researchers at ISU will immerse themselves into images of about 100 million pixels in the most realistic VR room in the world. Of course, this upgrade is not cheap. But with this $4 million addition, this new C6 should lead to new advances in urban planning, genetics, engineering or unmanned aerial vehicles. Read more...

Before discovering the new C6, here is a link to the original news release which announced the first version of the C6 room on June 8, 2000.

The equipment in this room has not been updated in six years. But with money from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the C6, which is operated by the Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC), will receive new equipment this year for a grand opening in 2007.

The difference between the equipment currently in the C6 and the updated technology to be installed this summer, "is like putting on your glasses in the morning," said James Oliver, the director of Iowa State's Virtual Reality Applications Center and a professor of mechanical engineering.
The new equipment -- a Hewlett-Packard computer featuring 96 graphics processing units, 24 Sony digital projectors, an eight-channel audio system and ultrasonic motion tracking technology -- will be installed by Fakespace Systems Inc. of Marshalltown.

Obviously, this upgrade to 96 megapixels from 6 megapixels will benefit the ISU researchers. Below is one of these researchers working inside the C6 (Credit: VRAC).

Inside the C6 virtual reality room

Now, let's look at some projects that will benefit from the new version of the C6 environment. For example, here is a picture of a student participating to the High-Dimensional Metabolic Networks led by Eve Wurtele (Credit: VRAC).

Studying genomics in the C6

Eve Wurtele, an Iowa State professor of genetics, development and cell biology, working with Julie Dickerson, an Iowa State associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, has used the C6 to develop new ways to visualize data from as many as 22,000 genes. She's also developing a virtual cell project that shows cells in 3-D action to help students learn about photosynthesis and other aspects of cell biology.

The C6 is also used for urban planning in U.S. China Cooperative Research led by Chiu-Shui Chan, and for which the students spent two real weeks in Beijing measuring monuments. Below is an image of central Beijing (Credit: VRAC).

Central Beijing in the C6

And here is an image from the Temple of Heaven, which was also measured by the students (Credit: VRAC).

The Temple of Heaven in the C6

There is also a project about unmanned aerial vehicles led by James Oliver. Inside the C6, a single operator controls several semi-autonomous unmanned remote vehicles and here is what he sees (Credit:VRAC).

Monitoring unmanned aerial vehicles in the C6

Oliver is leading a research team that's developing a virtual reality control room for the military's unmanned aerial vehicles. The researchers are building a virtual environment that allows operators to see the vehicles, the surrounding airspace, the terrain they're flying over as well as information from instruments, cameras, radar and weapons systems. The system would allow a single operator to control many vehicles.

I could continue over and over, but here is a link to a previous project I wrote about in October 2003, Playing With Technology -- and Augmented Reality.

Finally, Oliver said that "100 million pixels are going to make a difference" and he concluded with this.

"Seeing is going to be believing," he said. "This upgrade will enhance our ability to amplify the creativity and productivity of people. It will help us build on the center's record as a world leader in virtual reality."

[Disclaimer: I worked in the past for Silicon Graphics (SGI) and it is sad to learn that the company had to file for chapter 11 protection two days ago.]

Sources: Iowa State University news release, May 8, 2006; and VRAC web site

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