Louisiana invests in immersive technology

State backs high-performance computing facility to attract wide range of industries

In the heart of Cajun country, Louisiana state and municipal officials are completing the construction of a $27.5 million, supercomputer-powered 3-D visualization complex that they hope will become the nucleus of a new Silicon Valley.

The Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE), which could be operational by late April or early May, would immediately support research and development activities for independent oil and gas companies that don't have the expertise or investment dollars for such immersive technologies.

Officials supporting the LITE complex said its leading-edge technologies could attract other industries, such as medical, biotechnology, environmental and entertainment companies ' and help those industries incubate new products. Officials said the project could also help New Orleans and other areas recover and rebuild following the devastation from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

'We're not trying to be industry-specific, but we are trying to be science-specific,' said Gregg Gothreaux, president and chief executive officer of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority (LEDA).

By granting commercial access to high-performance supercomputing and advanced visualization technologies through a high-speed, fiber-optic network, Louisiana officials are creating a new way of doing business, Gothreaux said. 'A business can simply walk in the door and contract to use the facility without any previous relationship,' he said. 'There's no doubt that's unique, and we think it's just going to open the door to more opportunities.'

Interacting with data

Officials from LEDA, the state government and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette formed a partnership to develop a state-of-the-art, 70,000-square-foot facility on the university's campus. The state is mostly funding the complex, although officials have received some private and federal funds.

The complex will be co-named the SGI Center for Innovative Research and Advanced Visualization because Silicon Graphics Inc., located in Mountain View, Calif., is integrating and installing the high-performance computing, visualization and storage technologies.
Twenty-two SGI Altix 350 servers, each powered by 16 Intel Itanium 2 processors, provide high-performance computing. The storage-area network can hold 8 terabytes of data. The complex uses 3-D software developed by Mercury Computer Systems.

The LITE complex comprises four rooms that companies, university researchers and others can use. Mark Fallentine, SGI's project manager, said developers will complete the construction in the next two months. The center will celebrate its grand opening in early July.

The first room is a 3-D cave system, or immersive space, where people can walk into an environment that provides visual representations of data, something similar to the holodeck on 'Star Trek,' Fallentine said. The three-story, six-sided room uses six projectors to display 1,050 x 1,050 pixel resolution images on all walls, the floor and the ceiling.

Ramesh Kolluru, director of the university's Center for Business and Information Technologies, said this 3-D immersive technology could, for example, help oil and gas companies explore the Gulf of Mexico for resources.

'You can talk about a geologist sitting down on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico looking up at'a fault line and knowing exactly how they can perform the operation of vertical drilling at an angle so they can avoid the reservoirs that have already been tapped significantly.'

Kolluru said the immersive technologies could also help physicians perform telesurgery or telemedicine and conduct other medical procedures. Several companies are interested in using the application to help the state recover and rebuild from last year's hurricanes, Kolluru said. With the ability to process large data sets from aerial imagery and geographic information systems and other resources, officials can simulate models of surges, tidal events or weather patterns and their effects on the infrastructure, he said.

If researchers need more computing capacity than the facility can provide, officials said, the center can draw aggregate supercomputing power statewide through a 60-gigabits/sec connection to the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative. It is a $40 million statewide fiber-optic network that links mainframe computers at the state's major research universities.

The statewide network also connects to the National LambdaRail, a transcontinental optical Ethernet and IP networking infrastructure built on more than 10,000 miles of fiber-optic cable. National LambdaRail is designed for national-scale research and experimentation in networking technologies and applications.

LITE's complex will contain a 175-seat auditorium with a 37-foot curved screen created by three advanced projectors providing limited 3-D visualization. There will be an executive conference room with a two-rear projection system, enabling users to conduct PowerPoint presentations, videoconferencing and other applications. Fallentine also said the building will have another conference room with a three-projector screen system that supports 3-D environments.

'The heart of the visualization is fed from the SGI Prism computer in the data center running a Linux operating system,' Fallentine said.

Society-changing technology

LITE appears to be paying dividends before it opens. For example, university officials were able to recruit Carolina Cruz, who has made major contributions to immersive virtual reality research, from her position at Iowa State University.

The complex has generated a great deal of interest, and officials have spoken with several companies about how advanced technologies could help them solve problems associated with energy, homeland security, wetlands protection and the rebuilding of levees, Gothreaux said.
The business model for the facility will enable some companies to and lease supercomputer time, he said. But three tenant companies within the building will be the primary users, along with strategic partners such as SGI, Christie Digital Systems and Global Data Systems, which operates the LITE data center.

Gothreaux said the project was conceived three years ago to help Lafayette, located in south central Louisiana, diversify its economy. The city has a relatively low unemployment rate, and the community voted last year to spend $125 million to bring fiber optics to every home.
'We were looking for an economy-changing ' even, to a certain extent, a society-changing ' science,' Gothreaux said.

Kolluru said the university received federal funding to start a technology incubator to help spin off or start companies or enhance a company's current offerings. He compared LITE's commercial accessibility with the early days of the Internet, which began as a government research tool and eventually created a whole new economy.

The combination of supercomputing driving advanced visualization technology on a high-speed network will help create a whole new type of economy, he said.
'That's exactly what will happen because we've not offered these kinds of technologies to businesses in Louisiana and even more broadly to small and medium-sized businesses before,' Kolluru said. 'As such, I see a tremendous opportunity in the kinds of things that happened when the Internet was available as a tool for businesses.'


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