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SGI: Simulating A Lot More Than Dinosaurs

Silicon Graphics, Inc. is the leader in simulation animation. Thor J. Mednick discovers just how broad the applications are, from military to medical.

The Onyx2 family of computers from Silicon Graphics. © Silicon Graphics.

Applications for real-time 3-D graphics are constantly evolving as technology progresses. "No surprise," may remark the experienced market observer. However, the advances made in this area by the pioneers at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) have been dramatic. Furthermore, the applications are more widespread than you may think. From the U.S. Air Force, to medicine, to The America's Challenge yacht, animation is being used in places in which we have probably never dreamed.

Just Like Being There

Consider, for instance, the image generator at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, which is now powered by SGI's Onyx2 InfinteReality system. When tested in a real-time full-mission training environment that included traditional image generators, SGI's system was shown to give pilots a display resolution two times better than was found using any other system. This is quite an extraordinary degree of improvement over the industry standard. According to Col. Lynn Carroll, chief of the Warfighter Training Research Division at the lab, "From here on out, every simulator will be judged against this kind of performance." The Air Force's use of Onyx marks the first time that a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) product, combined with third-party software and databases, has proven superior to traditional image generators in display resolution.

Moreover, the system's level of performance has been remarkable. The Onyx2 InfiniteReality system-based image generator can drive six display channels at 60Hz update rates with 1700 x 1350 pixels per channel or 13 megapixels total. Using sub-meter geo-specific ground imagery and 3-D weather effects, the new simulation demonstrates the true integration of photo-realistic imagery, from satellite and high altitude surveillance aircraft, into a synthetic environment. "Our goal is to have pilots experience the synthetic world of their simulators just as they would experience the real world," said John Labry, global Air Force account manager for Silicon Graphics.

Okay, so our experienced (read jaded) market observer might not find it amazingly surprising that these advances have come into play in such a traditionally active field as flight simulation. So let's move onto the list of industries to which the application of real-time 3-D graphics has grown to include several less obvious areas.

Coryphaeus Software created this real-time Bay Bridge model using SGI machines. © 1998 Coryphaeus Software, Inc.

Urban Planning Goes Virtual

One such area is urban planning. A powerful new 3-D urban simulation system from Coryphaeus, running on SGI systems, is a key component in the project to rebuild San Francisco's Bay Bridge. With this system in place, California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) planners have the opportunity to "fly through" any design being considered. This allows not only a precise view of any physical aspect of the structure, but also the experience of flying over, transversing, or passing under the new bridge by ship. This makes the Onyx2 InfiniteReality-based high end graphics a more powerful alternative to pre-created animation which holds the viewer to a limited number of view choices.

Caltrans Director James van Loben Sels said, "This technology will help both the public and Caltrans engineers better understand the scope and nature of proposed transportation improvements on the California landscape."

Three simulations were created from proposed designs. Engineers fed 3-D wireframe models of each proposal, and a variety of real-world data such as terrain reposts, satellite imagery of the Bay and its surrounds, and photorealistic skylines of Oakland and San Francisco, into the Onyx2 system, running Coryphaeus' real-time graphics application, MetroSim. This produced a highly reliable profile of each proposal.

"Urban simulation vastly broadens the use of real-time 3-D graphics technology beyond its traditional applications," said John Murphy, president of Coryphaeus Software. "By creating realistic digital prototypes of structures long before they are built, this remarkable new application promises to touch the lives of people in all walks of life."

Texaco's Reality Center

The oil and gas exploration and production industry is another example of SGI's expansion of graphics applications into other industries. "Success in our industry depends on the ability to make better informed, faster drilling decisions using highly complex data, with a high degree of accuracy at the same time," explained Michael J. Zeitlin, Portfolio Manager for Texaco's Visualization Technology. "Silicon Graphics visualization technology is being used along with Texaco proprietary technology in order to improve our production process, reduce the time we spend analyzing data by an order of magnitude, and identify new reserves."

Texaco recently installed an Onyx2 InfiniteReality powered system in its new 3-D Visualization Center. This facility allows scientists to interact with subsurface data in an ultra-realistic, 3-D setting, and observe simulations to reduce greatly the time and cost of projects. "Fly throughs" of subsurface 3-D models, conducted from a state-of-the-art "driver's seat," are displayed on a 25-by-9 foot spherical screen with a 160 degree field of view, three projectors, balance control and surround sound.

This improvement means a threefold increase in Texaco's seismic analysis capability, major improvements in oil and gas extraction, lower-cost reservoir production, and the ability to identify difficult-to-produce reservoirs with greater accuracy, thereby reducing financial risk significantly.

Silicon Graphics created the first Reality Center, upon which Texaco's is based, in 1994. Since then, "It has gained steady momentum and is being deployed across a wide range of industries," said Patrick Ling, a Reality Center manager and technical advisor at Silicon Graphics.

A brain map created using SGI's Onyx2 RealityMonster Photo courtesy of The Laboratory of Neuroimaging at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Division of Brain Mapping.

Mapping the Brain

Silicon Graphics' machines have also been applied to the field of neuroimaging. The Laboratory of Neuroimaging at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Division of Brain Mapping, as well as the other two lead research centers of the International Brain Mapping Consortium, have been given a helping hand with their project of creating a map of brain structure and function, with the introduction of SGI's Onyx2 RealityMonster supercomputer.

As the field of neuroimaging grows, so does the massive database associated with the research. "The overall goal of the brain mapping initiative is to develop a four-dimensional, probability-based atlas of the human brain," described Dr. Arthur Toga, professor of neurology at the UCLA School of Medicine and Director of the UCLA Laboratory of Neuroimaging. "The new supercomputer, which will be networked among UCLA scientists and others around the world, will help us keep pace with the demands of this ever-expanding project."

Viewing and manipulation of 3-D models of the brain, and high-resolution graphics, will greatly advance brain modeling. The resultant new understandings of structure and function will allow physicians to develop better informed and more effective strategies for intervention and treatment of brain disorders. Toga explained, "The addition of this technology represents the first marriage between the most advance neuroscience and the most advance computer graphics technology...From our perspective, this explodes the envelope of current capabilities and moves us into a whole new area of brain research."

"It's exciting to see the medical community applying our advanced graphics to achieve breakthroughs in research," said Linda Jacobsen, advanced graphics market development manager at Silicon Graphics. "It is our goal to make high-resolution interactive visualization accessible to every hospital, medical center and school to further accelerate medical research."

Chrysler has been using SGI technology to design cars. © Chrysler.

Designing 5,500 Car Parts

Silicon Graphics' technology is also making its mark in the automotive industry, where it was instrumental in helping Chrysler Corporation design its next generation of full size sedans. Using SGI workstations running Dassault Systems' CATIA software and Chrysler Data Visualizer (CDV), Chrysler took off months of design time, and markedly increased product quality for such marquee cars as the 1998 Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid and the 1999 Chrysler 300M and LHS. This technology allowed for the design of the first ever "paperless" cars. The hope was to eliminate the need for cumbersome paper drawings, and reduce the need for high-cost clay models. This was effected with digital prototyping, or digital model assembly (DMA).

The visualization and analysis of model reduction, animation, and fits, and the creation and analysis of more than 5,500 digital parts, were made possible on SGI workstations. "Silicon Graphics technology has changed our world at Chrysler. We never could have done what we've done without Silicon Graphics systems," says Art Anderson, manager of large car platform advanced vehicle engineering at Chrysler.

"In order to visualize the large number of models that define an entire vehicle," continued Anderson, "we needed a powerful graphics engine that could generate interactive images, with multiple processors for analysis. Using Silicon Graphics workstations in the DMA process, allowed us to identify and resolve over 1,500 interference, fit and design issues prior to the build of the first physical prototype vehicles for the Intrepid and Concorde. The DMA process was a major contributor in reducing the design and engineering cycle time from 39 to 31 months."

Anderson also offered this example of the advantages of simulatory animation: "We were also able to verify the processing required to install the power train and chassis into the body prior to actual installation...During the build of the `93 LH, it took us three weeks to get the power train and chassis installed because we had so many major interferences. With the `98 vehicle, it fit the first time we tried it."

Advances such as these are typical of the impact that SGI is having at Chrysler. Jennifer Morton, market development manager for digital prototyping at SGI said, "Chrysler has succeeded in turning collaborative design into a strategic advantage, something toward which many other companies are striving."

Coryphaeus Software created this real-time Bay Bridge model using SGI machines. © 1998 Coryphaeus Software, Inc.

Silicon Graphics' involvement in automobiles and transportation does not stop at street cars. They have also helped racing teams in Formula One and C.A.R.T. achieve championship level design and performance. In fact, SGI's contributions have even found their way into the water. The America's Challenge yacht, which competed in the Whitbread Round the World Race in September of last year, was riding on a keel fin and bulb designed with the help of a dual-processor Silicon Graphics OCTANE workstation.

"We believe there will be tremendous growth in the use of digital prototyping technology; namely because customers are constantly faced with new challenges in their product development process," said Azita Martin, manufacturing market manager at Silicon Graphics, Inc. "The strides our customers are making with our products, speaks to the high level of excellence and innovation that Silicon Graphics technology provides."

Thor J. Mednick is a writer based in California. In addition to writing documentation in the field of information storage, he also contributes to a number of publications with both non-fiction and fiction works.

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