Release Date: December 11, 2002
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Researchers at the University at Buffalo now are able to "meet" with colleagues across the state or across the globe without ever leaving campus using a new Access Grid node -- the first such facility at an academic institution in New York State -- in UB's Center for Computational Research.
The Access Grid node, or simply the AG node, is a system of multiple computers, cameras, microphones and three ceiling-mounted projectors displaying conferencing streams on a 12-foot display screen permitting individuals in the facility to communicate in real-time with participants at other similarly equipped sites around the world.
CCR recently assembled a new tiled-display wall, measuring 88 square feet, and displaying visual information at 20 times the resolution of conventional large-format display screens and permitting scientific visualizations in larger-than-life proportions.
The two systems were assembled using readily available commodity equipment, such as personal computers and portable projectors, to keep acquisition and maintenance costs to a fraction of what they would be for custom-built systems.
UB is one of a few locations in the world where an AG node and a tiled-display wall are located in the same room. The glass-enclosed facility is attracting its share of gawking students and passersby.
UB's AG node also has attracted the attention of other institutions around the state, including representatives from Cornell University, which is considering deploying its own AG node, and Corning Glass.
"UB is an early adopter of this technology," explained Russ Miller, Ph.D., CCR director and UB Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, who already has used the access grid to "attend" academic workshops in other cities without leaving campus. "It's a far cry from videoconferencing when a large number of sites and people are involved," he noted. "You're
not looking for cameras or leaning over to talk into a microphone. Except for the fact that you can't shake someone's hand or talk in the hallway, it's just like being in the same room."
"The Access Grid node was installed in CCR in order to help our user base collaborate with many of the big supercomputing centers around the world," said Jeffrey Tilson, CCR computational scientist. He added that it exploits UB's Internet2 connection, which is a national consortium of research universities working to develop next-generation Internet technologies.
UB's AG node is one of about 120 in the world, most of which are located in supercomputing centers and large scientific facilities. Efforts are under way to use the high-end, low-cost technology to connect government agencies, said Miller. For example, he said, if officials in Washington needed to collaborate with those in numerous states simultaneously -- and where eye contact and body language were important -- the access grid technology offers a cost-effective solution.
"By simultaneously coordinating many dozens of audio and video signals, the access grid, which is the infrastructure that makes this possible, allows all participants to feel as though they are an integral part of the session," said Tilson.
The AG node features a 12-foot-by-7-foot projection screen on which each participating site appears in a separate window. Video equipment from Hauppauge and Sony, combined with Dell computers and wall-mounted and tripod-mounted cameras, captures the images of UB participants, broadcasts them to the access grid and displays similar streams for all other participants.
Powered by 20 personal computers and 20 commodity NEC projectors, the tiled-display wall provides a way for teams of scientists to view high-resolution images and animations not effectively viewed on conventional, large-size display systems. As the ability to generate scientific data has increased exponentially, Miller explained, so has the need to accurately display it.
"It is difficult to visualize certain structures or results on a typical 1,024 by 768 pixel monitor, regardless of whether the monitor is 17 inches in diameter or 4 feet by 5 feet in size like the ImmersaDesk in CCR and other large display devices at UB," he said. "If you look at a large protein on a conventional screen, you would miss critical fine details that would be visible on the tiled-display wall."
The display surface on UB's tiled-display wall projects 5,120 x 3,072 pixels for a total of more than 15 million pixels. "Fifteen million pixels provides incredible resolution," Miller added.
He said CCR made the investment in the wall to facilitate leading-edge science in such fields as bioinformatics, computational chemistry, environmental engineering and fluid dynamics.
CCR scientists also are beginning to work with UB physicians and surgeons to use the tiled-display wall to examine and discuss CT and MRI data from a variety of patients and diseases.
"The wall allows us to provide a scientific environment where groups of 10 or 15 people can comfortably examine one interesting molecule, or a particular facet of groundwater flow," said Miller. "Further, due to the brightness of the display, there is no need to work in a darkened room, which is another added bonus."
Tilson said that by providing both the tiled-display wall and the access grid node in a single location, CCR is maximizing the potential synergies of the technologies, since images on the wall can be viewed by participants on an access grid node at other sites.
"The tiled-display wall is a device that is used to explore new science and medical techniques, while the access grid is the system for enabling collaboration," he added. "So, ultimately, you want the technologies for remote collaboration and the ability to view new high-end science all in same environment, and we're one of the few centers in the world that can provide that."