The New Visualization

A new generation of graphics processors and add-in-boards (AIBs) puts large-scale visualization in reach.

Robert Dow

In order to design automobiles, airplanes, search for oil (or contain it), and examine artifacts like a 2000-year-old mummy, large scale visualization systems are needed.

The Gov contemplates NASA Ames’ viz systemVisualization system can mean different things to different people so a little definition is required to avoid confusion and controversy.

I make a distinction between large-scale and localized visualization systems. A localized system, by my definition, is a single monitor used by an investigator and may be shown to colleagues, on occasion. Visualization systems employing voxels for medical research is a typical example, as are individual product lifecycle management (PLM) visualization systems.

Visualization systems are also often confused with simulation systems. For example, in finite element analysis (FEA) a mathematical simulation is made, typically of a stressed component such as a beam, and then visualized for the stress points, which are typically displayed in pseudo colors to highlight the effect.

A large-scale visualization systems, employs two or more displays, or projectors, and can occupy an entire desktop, a wall, or an entire room (i.e. a cave.) When dealing with a visualization wall further definitions are required. Is the visualization wall, strictly computer graphics (CG) generated, a mix of CG and video, or just video. These types of visualization systems typically get defined as command and control (CCD — where the “D” stands for decision), signage, situational, and scientific or engineering visualization. Video walls are a completely different system.

The situational and scientific or engineering visualization systems are, to my way of thinking, the most interesting because they involve the highest degree of computer resolution and display capabilities. Very often, these visualization systems provide stereo graphic caScalable Display Technologies rear projection systempability (S3D.)
In the past, circa 1990, large-scale visualization systems were built by Evans and Sutherland, SGI, and various military contractors like General Electric, Lockheed, and Mechdyne. These systems sold for $100,000 to a few million dollars. The costs were due to installation, and low-volume state-of-the-art equipment such as high-resolution bright projectors, large powerful workstations, and custom software.

Today, it’s possible to replicate those expensive systems for under $20,000 (not including physical installation and modifications.) And that brings me to the thesis of this discussion – the amazing visualization capabilities offered today on the PC from AMD and Nvidia.

There are various ways to display a large scale visualization system. The simplest and least expensive method is to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) LCD or plasma displays. High-resolution and extremely bright projectors can also be used if a greater distance between the display and the viewer is required, such as is found in a situation room or theater. In between those two examples are semi-custom panoramic projector display systems like those offered by Scalable Display Technologies and Ostendo.

Large-scale visualization systems of the 90s and early 2000 employees, what were called image generators (in some circles they are still called that.) today’s “image generators,” are a graphics add-in board (AIB.).

Today, you can purchase for $479 an AMD Radeon 5870 EyeFinity 6 AIB that can drive six 2560 x 1600 displays, which could be as small as 17 inches, or as large as 60 inches each. Envision a wall composed of six 60 inch plasma HD screens. The cost of such a system would be $10,800 for the displays, $479 for the AIB, 2,000 for the PC, 600 for cables, and 10,000 for some visualization type software. Total system cost $23,879 that is truly amazing.

If you want to add another dimension to the visualization system then you have to put a little bit more money into the displays and the AIBs. Nvidia offers a S3D surround system that can drive three 120 Hz displays with up to 2560 x 1600 resolution. Large screen LCD and plasma TVs are being offered now with 120 Hz to 240 Hz refresh and could be wall mounted to provide a very large three panel stereographic visualization system. The estimated cost of the system would be just $16,000 – $2,700 for three 46-inch 1080p 120Hz displays, $1,000 for tNvidia 3D Surround he Nvidia GTX 480 AIBs (however. It should be possible to do this with Nvidia’s new lower-cost GTX. 465 AIB), a PC for $2,000, $300 for cables, and software $10,000. Unbelievable.

These are the next generation, or maybe this generation, of powerful visualization systems. If projectors are preferred over monitors the cost will go up, the personalized panoramic displays typically sell for $10,000 each, and a Sony SXRD projector will set you back $5k. But even with more expensive display systems,

AMD's EyeFinity 6

it’s still possible to build a system for a fraction of what it would have cost five years ago.As a result of these new economies and capabilities I predict we will see a resurgence in the visualization market, indicating a cost elasticity that few believed was there.

I’ve been testing the systems in our lab using COTS simulation programs otherwise known as FPS games. I’ve run FPS simulation programs on a six monitor API system, and S3D FPS simulation programs on an Nvidia S3D surround system. In both cases, I was extremely satisfied with the performance and the only complaint was the size of the bezels. Companies like NEC have developed 46-, and 55-inch bezel-less 1080p displays ($999 and $1,499 respectably) for signage applications, which could easily be employed in a visualization system. Currently, the NEC displays are only 60 Hz, but it shouldn’t be a big problem for them to move to 120 Hz panels.

So welcome to the new world of democratized visualization systems — now every researcher, designer, geophysicist, traffic engineer, or military commander can have an affordable, powerful, highly functional, and maybe even portable visualization system.

Ostendo’s CRVD folded projector displays