Sandia Labs offer clearer view

The US Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories has unveiled a 10-foot-high, 13-foot-wide screen that makes images from high-definition television look like grainy 1950s archive footage.

The facility’s digitised images, created from 20 million pixels, is said to approach the visual acuity of the eye itself. ‘The eyeball is the limiting factor, not the screen,’ said manager and program leader Philip Heermann. ‘From ten feet away, the image is as good as your eyes are able to see.’

The new screen is, according to Heermann, the fastest in the world in rendering complex scientific data sets.

The images are expected to allow scientists a better view of complicated systems.

Sandia’s immediate needs are to improve understanding of complex situations like crashes and fires, but the facility is also valuable for microsystems, nanotechnology and biological explorations.

‘It does not make sense to view a detailed 20- or 100-million-cell simulation on a standard one-million-pixel display,’ said Heermann. Data presented as columns of numbers would be a numbing amount of information for the brain to comprehend.

Clusters of computers, or ‘render farms,’ may take a half-hour or more to render a frame — the equivalent of the Sandia screen — but they cannot handle the data set sizes or the interactive rates of the Sandia cluster, which is said to render huge data sets in seconds.

The Sandia images are created through massively parallel imaging, which could be thought of as the kid brother of massively parallel computing — a method of orchestrating the individual outputs of many desktop computers to produce a combined output faster than a very complex, single supercomputer.

In this case, the image is not created from a single graphics card but instead through the orchestrated outputs of 64 computers splitting data into 16 screens arranged as a 4 by 4 set.

By January, Heermann expects the Sandia team to reach the project’s second phase goal of 64 million pixels – a major milestone of the ASCI VIEWS (Visual Interactive Environment for Weapons Simulation) program.

Depending on budget and the availability of technology, 16 additional projectors with even higher resolution (1600 by 1200 pixel resolution) will eventually be installed along with another array of 16 more 1280 by 1024 projectors for a total of three projector arrays with an overall display resolution of 69 megapixels.