‘Viz Wall’ Offers Giant Research Prospects

Originally published Nov. 2011

By Jenn Crawford and Daniel Perez

One of the biggest brains at The University of Texas at El Paso waits for its next challenge on the fourth floor of the Classroom Building.

Today, UTEP’s Cyber-ShARE Center of Excellence Collaborative Visualization System serves as a combination research and education tool and goodwill ambassador. But the minds behind the brain know it is capable of much more.
The supercomputer system, better known as the “viz wall,” was designed and created by a UTEP team as part of a three-year, $700,000 National Science Foundation grant awarded in 2009. It was unveiled April 7, 2011.

The matrix of 45 40-inch computer monitors stacked five high and nine across is capable of displaying 93-megapixel images. The system allows researchers from fields as diverse as geological sciences, computer engineering and medicine to better view and model complex processes.

For researchers studying detailed images of the moon or the Earth’s surface, or developing models of how a drug travels through the body, the visualization wall is a critical tool.

“The whole idea behind a visualization wall is to integrate a very high resolution image using the individual attributes of each of the monitors,” said Rodrigo Romero, Ph.D., associate director of Cyber-ShARE and the grant’s principal investigator.

“The screens pull you into the features of the image,” Romero said as he looked onto a moonscape displayed on the electronic canvas that stretches 27-feet across and 9-feet high. “People who study these kinds of things just go crazy with analysis.”

Because the visualization wall is comprised of 45 computers, it also can be used to perform intense computations. To generate models of the Earth’s crust, for example, requires an algorithm so computation intensive that it would take hours to process on a standard computer. With the visualization system, processing takes only a few minutes, Romero said.

“The ultimate goal is for it to become interactive, which will allow the scientists and students to explore ‘what-if’ scenarios on the fly,” he said. Like a video game, the scenarios would let scientists know what will happen if they make small adjustments to their models.

Among the staff who maintains the wall is Sergio Moctezuma, who earned his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from UTEP in 2009 and his master’s this fall.

“There is a lot of motivation to work here. The wall is made up of some of the best equipment on campus,” Moctezuma said. “We get to play with some of the best toys.”

The staff continues its efforts to enhance the wall’s capabilities to accommodate more users, said Javier Garcia, the wall’s systems specialist. Among the current projects is to increase the wall’s display capability in excess of 100 megapixels for a more defined illustration, he said.

The clarity is important as Cyber-ShARE and UTEP’s Stanlee & Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts collaborate on a new artist-in-residence program that will combine art with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The goal is to create electronic visual art that can increase the understanding and appreciation of research and education activities tied to STEM for outreach to K-12 students.

“We’re really excited about this opportunity to pair different disciplines,” said Kerry Doyle, assistant director of the Rubin Center. “It gives students a chance to visualize connections between science and art on a larger scale. It will be interesting to see where this takes us.”

Interested artists must submit their proposals by Dec. 12. Work should begin in January 2012 and be completed in about five months.

For more information about the residency in electronic arts, visit www.utep.edu/rubin.

Click here to see video of Rodrigo Romero, Ph.D., talking about the ‘viz wall.’