Sandia LabNews

Sandia Visualization Corridor formally opens with 20-million pixel display

A 10-foot-high, 13-foot-wide screen that makes high-definition television look in comparison as grainy as an old TV in a cheap motel will be formally unveiled by Sandia on July 12.

The facility’s digitized images of highly complicated scientific data sets are created of 20 million pixels.

"If the devil is in these details, we’ll find him," joked Brian Wylie (9227) of the opportunity for finding formerly hidden mischief through the unusual clarity of the huge data set’s visual rendering.

The image is as detailed as if an aircraft at 21,000 feet were imaging every ear of corn in a 100-acre field, says manager and program leader Philip Heermann (9227). "The image approaches the visual acuity of the eye: the eyeball is the limiting factor, not the computer. From ten feet away, the image is as good as your eyes are able to see."

Also, even the world’s largest sets are rendered in seconds rather than minutes or hours.

"We are 100 times faster in producing an image than the fastest SGI graphics pipe," says Philip, "and to my knowledge are now the fastest in the world in rendering complex scientific data sets." (SGI is generally acknowledged as an industry leader in graphics performance.) The "Scalable Rendering Team" that created the cluster includes, among others, Milt Clauser, Ken Moreland, Dino Pavlakos, and Brian Wylie (all 9227).

The screen is part of Sandia’s Visualization Corridor — so-called because "it suggests a wide path through which large quantities of data can flow," says project manager Carl Leishman (14111). Images are created through massively parallel imaging, which could be thought of as the kid brother of massively parallel computing. The image is not created from a single graphics card but instead through the orchestrated outputs of 64 computers splitting data into 16 screens arranged as a 4 x 4 set.

Next stop: 64 million pixels

By January, Philip expects the Sandia team to reach the project’s second phase goal of 64 million pixels — a major milestone of the ASCI VIEWS program, which funds this work. "Sandia is the Lab charged with responsibility for this milestone, and we will meet it," he says. The images are expected to allow scientists a better view of where nuclear and other complex reactions are behaving unexpectedly and where they are proceeding normally. Says Philip, "It does not make sense to view a 20- or 100-million cell simulation result on a standard one-million-pixel display."

The ASCI/VIEWS Visualization Corridor was conceived and built by Sandia’s VIEWS Visualization and VIEWS Operational Deployment team to support development and deployment of scalable rendering and display technologies. The 2,500-square-foot facility in Bldg. 880 is deliberately located close to many of its potential users, including the weapon analysts in that building. The technology developed in the Visualization Corridor is expected to reach another peak within the walls of Sandia’s MESA Complex in 2006, where weapon engineers will work in close proximity with weapon analysts, engineering scientists, and microtechnology developers.

The current facility features three wall-sized rear-projection display screens, custom-constructed by Stewart Filmscreen Corp., of Torrance, Calif. The display screens — each 10′ x 13′ — may be the largest individual pieces of glass in New Mexico. The screens were installed through an open wall during remodeling of the building, and if they are ever removed or replaced, an access port in the roof will allow the screens to be lifted in or out with a crane.

Arrays of high-performance digital projectors (1280 x 1024 pixel resolution) provide the screen images. The initial installation consists of one center-screen stack of 16 digital high-resolution projectors, with individual projectors for the left and right screens. The system is configured with no image-edge overlaps. Because of the brightness of the projectors, the extremely high-resolution images are easily discernible in ambient light conditions, and users can work in the environment with their books, papers, computers, and other devices and interact normally with one another.

Down on the "render farm"

Driving the images will be one of the first computer clusters designed for graphics rendering and image display. Building on Sandia’s expertise in scalable high-performance computing, the VIEWS team has fielded a cluster of 64 Compaq SP750 workstation computers. Although the computers are similar to home computers, they are interconnected with a very high bandwidth, gigabit wire speed, communications fabric. Software created by Sandia’s VIEWS scalable rendering team leverages the data interconnect to perform scalable parallel rendering of computer simulation data into images. Clusters of computers, or "render farms," used for many years in the movie industry, may take a half-hour or more to render a frame — the equivalent of the Sandia screen — but they cannot handle the data set sizes or the interactive rates of the Sandia cluster. Plans exist to move the 64-node computer cluster into the classified environment and to assemble a new unclassified computer cluster.

Other, smaller view-clusters exist at Princeton, Stanford, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. These programs, as well as another to be operable this winter at the University of Texas at Austin, are all funded by ASCI.

The Corridor provides many other classified and unclassified data sources for display: workstations, video teleconferencing, media creation support for animation files, and VHS and DVD. Automated video and audio matrix-switching support both unclassified and classified sources, and a variety of display modes are available. The user facility is available on a 24-hour basis.