New virtual-reality environment gives science a three-dimensional view of computation
- by Eric Gedenk -
In the University of Stuttgart’s new HLRS building, researchers can step into a room less than 3 meters wide and travel through a running coal power plant, lift a car above their heads, stand in the middle of hemoglobin proteins, or travel alongside a water line buried deep underground in the Black Forest.
The building, which opened at the end of October, features the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE). The CAVE gives researchers a fully immersive, 3-D simulation environment to analyze and discuss their computations.
"Most of our simulations are 3-D, and hardly any simulations use 2-D anymore", says Uwe Wössner, group lead of the visualization team at HLRS. “All biological systems, technical systems, and climate phenomena are 3-D in nature, and now that we have the computational resources, we can simulate them in 3-D as well."
The CAVE projects visualizations on five surfaces, allowing teams of researchers to step inside their simulations. Using a special mouse or 3-D glasses, researchers can orient the images so they appear naturally to the human eye. The technology for the CAVE spans three floors. The five single-chip DLP projectors each send a respective right and left image, creating an accurate rendering for the human eye, and offer a resolution of 1920 by 1200 pixels. Four cameras at the corners of the ceiling track the users’ glasses and input device to keep virtual environments in control of researchers. A 22-node Sandybridge cluster with NVIDIA Quadro graphics processing units and a QDR Infiniband interconnect powers the CAVE.
RECOM Services, in cooperation with energy providers and power plant manufacturers, uses HLRS supercomputers for updating and modernizing coal power plants worldwide. Their simulation of the Altbach power station allows research teams to plug in different variables and decide how modernization can be most effective in preventing corrosion to the plant, keeping emissions at the lowest possible level, and producing electricity efficiently. In their visualization, engineers can visualize temperature distributions and gas concentrations anywhere in the boiler. In this visualization, they can study complex flow fields through massive particle animations of coal powder and fresh air as well as the chemical reactions during combustion and exhaust gas cleaning.
Automobile companies like Porsche, Daimler and BMW can create aerodynamic simulations to observe drag and lift from any angle of the vehicle in real-time. Through simulations, industry researchers can make informed decisions on how to make the most fuel efficient car possible. "We do not just want to look at images, but offer insight into simulation results in all application fields," Wössner says.
Visualizations in the CAVE can also create entire virtual reality environments. Researchers at the HLRS have created an entire replica of Forbach, a town in the Black Forest, and its Rudolf Fettweis power station. In this simulation, researchers can not only go above and below ground to observe how the dam, underground turbines, and reservoir work together, but also go to any house in the area and observe how construction and modernization projects may affect citizens, wild life and the environment in general.
In addition to the CAVE itself, the visualization team offers a driving simulator, a high-resolution tiled display and various multitouch displays. "The idea is to use the hardware and visualization facilities that are best suited for the particular simulation data," Wössner says. In addition, Wössner notes that though visualizations are more focused on giving researchers the opportunity to collaborate on their projects, the center also welcomes visitors for presentations.