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Advanced Visualization Lab to Deliver
Picture-Perfect Education, Research at UC

Date: April 16, 2001
Story by: Mary Bridget Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Auto images courtesy of Alias|Wavefront, copyright 2001
Lab photo by: Dottie Stover
Archive: General News

"You could launch a space shuttle with this."

That's how Mark Harris of the University of Cincinnati describes the capabilities of the region's only Onyx supercomputer, now housed in UC's Computer Graphics Center.

The super computer is part of an advanced visualization lab made possible by millions in donations from computing powerhouse Silicon Graphics, Inc., and its software division Alias|Wavefront. SGI is the world leader in high-end computer hardware used by entertainment and design industries while Alias/Wavefront is the global leader in graphics software used by those industries.

UC faculty, seated, receive training from AW representative Alan Opler

Though UC students and faculty won't likely launch a space shuttle, the new Onyx as well as an advanced visualization 3-D "cave" and other hardware from SGI will launch UC as the region's educational and industry leader in areas like engineering, urban planning and design visualization; medical imaging research; as well as entertainment visual effects. Applications range from incredibly realistic molecular modeling and ocean current simulations to air pollution modeling.

"UC is now a world-class computing power," said Alias/Wavefront Ambassador Mark Sylvester, who helped to found Wavefront in the early 1980s. He added that the gift comes to the university because UC has a long track record for first-class training of future designers. "You need a super powerful computer to train tomorrow's auto designers. UC has a history as such with its longstanding relationships with auto designers. I've met the teachers at UC. I like the progressive thinking at UC and how they integrate new media technology into education," explained Sylvester, adding that technology has a critical impact on today's design industries.

He said, "There are no allowances for slow computer operations. Designers have large data files that only the fastest computers can handle. We're preparing students to get right to work [on co-op and upon graduation]. Education doesn't get second best. Anyone from Detroit could sit down at UC and not feel displaced."

What can this SGI hardware, Alias/Wavefront software as well as new Opticorp 3-D software do? Said Mark Harris, director of the Computer Graphics Center in UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, you can build a 3-D, eight-foot-long car model and animate it 360 degrees. "You can rotate it, switch on the lights, look under the hood. You can experience it in 3-D with shuttle goggles," he explained.

Bruce Aronow, associate professor and director of UC's Genome Informatics Research Core, explained that he hopes to use the Onyx and the visualization lab to put students and researchers right in the middle of the protein structures they study in order to better understand how molecules function and how that function may be affected by structural mutations. "The graphic...immersion environment can basically make us into the size of atoms...entering into the molecular environment. We can visualize the structural features of very complex gene products, proteins and relationships, and generate new ideas...that we can test directly in our research," he explained.

The new super hardware is a gift both to UC students and faculty and to regional industry, explained Harris. UC's engineering and design students routinely spend alternate quarters on cooperative education assignments around the globe. Now, they'll have experience with the best visualization equipment available before heading to the workplace. "Employers want the best skills. A company is not going to let a student use a $1 million visualization system if they don't have experience. At the same time, many employers aren't sure how to best use the advanced equipment they've got. Our students will be showing them how," added Harris.

Industrial design senior Dave Little of Lebanon, Ohio, agreed, "It helps on co-op when you bring these skills. Some working designers aren't computer savvy, or they don't have the time to learn the software programs." Little, who began using Alias/ Wavefront software during his third year at UC, has relied on animation and modeling software on four of his six stints with cooperative education employers. "We use it for ergonomic testing, how a device can be hand held for the best grip and for rapid prototyping. You can make really quick models on the computer. That saves on time instead of creating models by hand. That gives you more time for research, thinking through a project and creativity. You can think more and test more."

The SGI hardware donation, valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, includes:

  • an Onyx supercomputer "with more horsepower than the rest of the lab combined"

  • 8 Octane workstations that will comprise the individual units in the Computer Graphics Center new advanced visualization lab which resembles nothing so much as a high-tech "Bat" cave with its black interior and sound baffling used to enhance the 3-D environments created with the new technology

  • an 8-foot long monitor for displaying, virtually, the special effects, imaging, and results from research

  • 15 basic workstations for use by beginning design and engineering students
  • Hand-in-hand with the SGI donation is ongoing software product donations (since 1992) from Alias/Wavefront worth about $13 million. Their latest donation to DAAP includes state-of-the-art Maya software used in animation. In addition, high-end visualization software from Opticorp of Sweden was donated along with the latest SGI hardware.

    This newest technology are advanced versions of software and hardware that once made possible the realism of the running herd of dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" and continues to alter the way companies design, manufacture, market and maintain products. Once, only a few industries - like the movies - used this hardware and software. Now, this technology can be used to create stunningly realistic news, sports, entertainment and educational programming and "locations." Manufacturers use this technology to streamline the product development cycle, reducing the time-to-market for annual savings in the tens of millions.

    Students and other UC faculty will receive training with the new hardware and software over the spring and summer. By fall, it will be blended into DAAP's standard curriculum.

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