University's new supercomputer lets users walk into virtual world

Posted: Monday, March 31, 2003

FAIRBANKS - The Discovery Lab at the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center is opening up new ways of experiencing reality.

The supercomputing center recently finished installing the lab, a Mechdyne MD Flex system, in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library. The project was funded with a Next Generation Internet grant.

The staff last week offered the first official demonstration of the virtual environment. The nuts and bolts of the system are large, black steel cages that support the display, basically a cube minus the top and one side. The floor of the cube is surrounded on three sides by 10-foot-by-8-foot screens made of a rubbery material.

Huge projectors behind the screens and suspended above bounce images off mirrors and onto the screens and floor.

The computer that runs the lab, an SGI Onyx 3200 image generator with four gigabytes of memory, is housed at the center's machine room in the Butrovich Building on the campus' West Ridge. The two are connected via fiber optics.

While the technical specifications may be impressive, the real magic happens when you strap on the special goggles and step into the cube. Spend long enough in there, using one of several programs demonstrated Friday, and it's easy to lose perspective.

One program flew users over the Tanana Valley into Fairbanks, complete with three-dimensional hills and valleys. Another took users through the stars and past planets.

The center's Body Language User Interface program allows a user to draw in three dimensions.

Jon Genetti, associate professor of computer science, is working on a project that will use the lab to visualize the aurora borealis. He hopes the program will allow scientists to simulate standing in the middle of an auroral display.

"It allows you to experience your data in ways that are physically impossible," Genetti said.

The lab allows people to interact with data in a more real way, said Glenn Chappell, an assistant professor of computer science.

"We have some feelers from an orthopedic surgeon locally who wants to use this environment to design hip replacements," he said.

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