A whole new world

It’s not quite a holodeck on the Starship Enterprise, but it will let you see the most realistic three-dimensional (3D) images in the universe until, well, Zefram Cochrane makes first contact.

This futuristic, state-of-the-art laboratory, known as the Landmark Graphics Visualization Laboratory, has its home at Memorial University (MUN) in St.John’s. In recent years, the city’s economy has suffered because of limits on cod fishing. But with the increasing amount of oil drilling off Newfoundland’s coast, dollars have been pouring into the town, and the academic community is reaping the benefits.

The laboratory will be primarily used to conduct simulations and produce models of oil reservoirs, but MUN is looking to attract other researchers.

The National Library of Medicine in the U.S. has already signed on to have its Visible Human Project, an anatomically detailed, 3D representation of the different sexes, rendered in the lab.

The facility consists of a large visualization laboratory and a dome-shaped IMAX theatre, where as many as 20 scientists can view data in four dimensions: Three spatial and one temporal, MUN said. The screen is 7.5 feet height with an arc length of 22 feet.

“The screen is curved so it completely fills your peripheral vision,” Kocurko explained. ‘It’s back-projected so a person can walk right up to it without casting a shadow.”

Because of the back-lighting, MUN could not use the regular reflective screen employed in movie theatres. Instead, the screen is transmissive and composed of a gel-like substance. Vacuum pumps are used to suck back the gel-like screen onto plexiglass, which keeps it rigid, Kocurko said.

When installing the screen, Kocurko said they had to wear white cotton gloves and avoid touching it, to prevent dimpling. Instead, they could only barely move it with the flats of their hand.

To get the 3D effect viewers still have to wear 3D glasses, called LCD Shutter Glasses, but they’re much more high-tech than the geeky red-and green-goggles you use at the movies, he said.

The image hangs right in front of your eyes and viewers see it in Active Stereo, or in full colour, he said. Movie theatre 3D glasses only let people see in red and green, or Anaglyphic Stereo, he added.

The 3D effect, he said, is created by the combination of the projection system and infrared emitters, which send instructions to the goggles.

IBM provided the Deep Computing Visualization tools, which lets the laboratory render a single scene for projection, using multiple, independent, standalone PCs, Kocurko said.

One PC each renders the left, centre and right images, and each image is displayed by a separate projector. Hardware from Panoram Technologies Inc. converts the graphic signals from the PCs into a standard format and blends the edges of the three images to form one seamless image, Kocurko said. It’s also what lets the image be projected from behind the screen.

When the right projector displays images for the right eye, the infrared emitters send signals to the LCD Shutter Glasses to shut off the left lens, Kocurko explained. Then the left projector projects an image for the left and the right lens is shut off. This is done 96 times a second to create the 3d image, and viewers don’t even see a flicker, Kocurko said.

The Landmark Graphics Visualization Laboratory cost $20 million to build with support from Landmark Graphics, owned by oil giant Halliburton Company. Other partners include IBM Canada Ltd. and Panoram Technologies. The Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), part of the Atlantic Innovation Fun (AIF), also contributed money to the project.

Landmark Graphics supplied its entire suite of applications for processing and interpreting seismic data, Kocurko said.

IBM Canada supplied the 32-node Grid; each box sports a dual-node AMD Inc. Opteron chip and runs on Red Hat Inc.’s Enterprise Linux 3. Sixteen of the servers are used for visualization only and have 16GB of RAM, while the other 16 are for computation and have 6GB of RAM, he said.

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