ANU Supercomputer Facility - Annual Report 1998


Visualization Laboratory


Scientific visualization is the generic name given to techniques that use images and animations to interpret scientific data. Although large data sets can also come from experiments and remote sensors etc, the field has largely been driven by the difficulty of interpreting the enormous amounts of data produced by many supercomputer applications. Such data are often not only massive but multi-dimensional and time dependent, so conventional graphics techniques are often completely inadequate.

The ANUSF VizLab, which was the first such visualization laboratory established in Australia, aims to assist researchers in applying visualization tools to interpreting their data.

The main focus of the Visualization Laboratory is to provide software support and general visualization expertise as well as providing a small number of high performance graphics engines not generally available on users desktops. For the most demanding work a high end visualization workstation is provided. In many cases researchers have used the Visualization Laboratory's facilities to help decide upon the optimum solution to their visualization requirements before purchasing personal and departmental systems. Currently we have 59 user accounts on the lab machines.

The main equipment in the VizLab are a Silicon Graphics Onyx Reality Engine (RE2) workstation and a Silicon Graphics Onyx Indigo2 High Impact workstation. The Indigo2 High Impact machine is supplemented with a Ciprico disk array and a digital video I/O system. A combination of commercial, public domain and home grown software is used. The main software packages used are the AVS (Advanced Visual Systems) for general scientific visualization, Houdini for high quality modelling and animation and Illusion for video compilation and recording. A Silicon Graphics O2 with a MIPS R10000 processor and digital video support was purchased towards the end of 1998 and will become the primary video production machine in 1999. The older Indigo2 High Impact system will then be used primarily as a general 3D workstation for Houdini and AVS users.

Virtual Environments and other new developments

The WEDGE virtual environment mentioned in last year's report was commissioned and officially opened by the ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell in April. The WEDGE, developed in collaboration with Dr Gardner (DCS & ANUSF) and Dr Rod Boswell (RSPhysSE) has been a great success, especially from the perspective of ANU outreach with approximately 1000 visitors shown the WEDGE throughout the year. The visitors came from all walks of life and included high school students, architects, reporters, politicians, the Chief of Information Technology DSTO and other defence personnel, 50 participants of the "Women in Information Technology" program, scientists from various CSIRO divisions, 80 attendees of the "Working with Knowledge" conference and 35 participants in the Intergraph Users Group Meeting.

Drew Whitehouse provided technical advice on the design and choice of equipment for the WEDGE as well as creating the controlling software. This software, called pSpace, is capable of driving a range of Virtual Environment (VE) devices, in particular for the 2-screen WEDGE, and for single screen systems. The "pSpace" software is designed for the rapid development of multiple screen stereo virtual environments by non-expert users. It is based around a simple scripting language that hides the difficulties of managing the use of stereo vision, multiple screens and tracking devices.

These systems use the same off-the-shelf components used in expensive VE environments such as the CAVE (ie. lecture-theatre projectors, head-trackers, stereo glasses and synchronisation equipment available for many years on high-end workstations). By reducing the number of screens or the power of the graphics computer and avoiding expensive software licenses, the joint project has demonstrated that useful VE systems can be built relatively inexpensively by purchasing off-the-shelf components. Construction requires no special expertise and is inexpensive. In particular it has been shown that a low-cost graphics PC can be sufficient for many applications. Application users from such diverse areas as fusion physics, geosciences and art have already availed themselves of this technology.

During November the WEDGE was taken to Sydney and set up on the exhibition floor of the Powerhouse Museum in November for the dLux Media|Arts Future Screen program. During this time the WEDGE was viewed by the participants of the "Immersive Conditions" forum as well as members of the general public. As a result of this showing the Powerhouse Museum are currently investigating the feasibility of having the ANU develop a WEDGE system as a permanent technology exhibit.

On return from the Powerhouse Museum the WEDGE system was relocated to the Round House of the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering and two large (4x2.2 metre) screens were built into special internal walls. The resulting WedgeOrama is pictured inside the front cover.

An engineering honours student Alan Lusso, under the supervision of Dr Henry Gardner, completed an honours project developing a virtual environment system to aid the Plasma Research Laboratory visualize the heliac plasma experiment. There is to be more WEDGE based student projects in 1999. Anna Potter worked in the VizLab as a summer student where she helped in the documentation of an early version of the ANUSF's "pSpace" software. Anna will be one the honours students using the pSpace system in 1999.
Stuart Ramsden has continued his secondment from the Australian Centre for Arts and Technology (ACAT) and has been very active in the VizLab during 1998, producing many visualizations during the year. He has made a major contribution to the project led by Dr S Hyde, RSPhysSE, described below.

Dr Ajay Limaye joined the VizLab in October to assist faculty researchers in visualization related research projects assisted by ANU's RIBG funding. His first project is the development of a Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) model of Java's Borobudur stupa for Professor Michael Greenhalgh of the Art History Department. Good progress has been made and the project is on schedule to deliver a CD-ROM of VRML, image and text material by May 1999 (see Dr Limaye will be taking on new projects with faculty researchers in 1999.

Activities and Services Provided

Seminars and courses given by VizLab staff are listed elsewhere in this report. Visualization and consultation support was provided for a wide range of ANU schools including CRES, RSES, RSPhysSE, Department of Physics, Astrophysical Theory Centre, JCSMR, Department of Chemistry, Department of Applied Mathematics and ACAT. The following is a description of some of the larger projects undertaken in 1998.

In conjunction with Dr John Taylor, of CRES, 'An Analysis and Visualization of the Risk Associated with the Potential Failure of Nuclear Reactors in Turkey' was prepared as an online multimedia paper and a 3 minute video simulation. The work was commissioned by Greenpeace, and increased awareness of the potential environmental hazards. This report is available online at

An investigation into the relationship of embedded 3D Crystal frameworks and hyperbolic tilings was carried out with Dr Stephen Hyde of the Deptartment of Applied Mathematics, RSPhysSE. Initial visualizations included generation of 3D models and images, a WWW site with VRML models and pSpace code for visualizing models in the WEDGE. Some of the work is to be published in the book by S.Hyde and S.Ramsden 'Chemical Topology' Chapter 2: 'Crystals: Two-dimensional Non-Euclidean Geometry and Topology'. Online models are available at

Following on from earlier work, a substantial scientific visualization of the results of Dr Shin-Ho Chung et. al. illustrating the permeation of ions through membrane channels was completed. An 18 minute animation was prepared and subsequently shown in seminars given by Dr Chung in Australia and the United States. This research is detailed in the Appendix of this report, and images and mpeg movies are available online at


Software was developed for Professor Darrell Williamson for the simulation of tensegrity structures. A video of the results was made and presented at the Engineering Mechanics for the 21'st Century, ASCE Conference, La Jolla, California, May 17-20. Images and VRML models of the tensegrity structures simulated can be viewed at

A video titled "Numerical Modelling of Rapidly Varying Flood Flows" was made for Dr Stephen Roberts, School of Mathematical Sciences and the Computer Science Laboratory RSISE, ANU and Dr Christopher Zoppou, ACTEW Corporation and Mathematics and Statistics Department, Australian Defence Force Academy .

The current digital video recording system was used heavily for the Australian Centre for Art and Technology's (ACAT) students' semester projects. The ACAT usage is reported in the Appendix to this report.

Shorter projects included -

- AVS Course 29-30 January.

- Dr Rob Corkery, RSPhysSE, analysis of Termite nest (ongoing).

- Dr Roger Dubois, RSBS, mpeg sequences of audio spectra movies, 20 February.

- Dr Tavis Hamer & Dr Geoff Bicknell, MSSSO, video sequences - 20-22 February.

- AVS Course 9-10 July.

- Anthony Searle,video composite and edit of 'Visualizing Special Relativity', January and September.

- Sean O'Byrne, video composite of plasma flow time series, 11 September.

- Dr Geoff Davies, RSES, visualization for the cover of a book, 6-11 November.

- Dr Mark Knackstedt, RSPhysSE, generation of 3D Medial Axis skeletons of rock samples for interactive viewing via workstation and the WEDGE.



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