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Published on June 3, 2010 by Aaron Dubrow

Spitzer Milky Way survey presented in full resolution on the Stallion visualization system.

In October 2008, when the Texas Advanced Computing Center debuted its newly revamped Visualization Laboratory (Vislab) on The University of Texas at Austin main campus, the center's leadership had a few ideas about how the research community would use the lab. However, the reality has far outstripped expectations.

"We have been very pleased that we have seen users from lots of different scientific disciplines — as well as more non-traditional users out of the arts, humanities and social sciences — using the lab," said Kelly Gaither, TACC's director of the Visualization and Data Analysis group.

The Vislab houses several of the University's most advanced and dramatic displays. These include, Bronco, UT's most powerful video projector (the same used by the Alamo Drafthouse),Mustang, an 82" 3D TV (with 3D glasses), and Stallion, the highest-resolution tiled display in the world, a 75-monitor super-screen powered by a cluster of 23 compute nodes. Dell Inc. provided the computer systems and monitors for the lab, which together enable users to explore high-resolution images, to stage dynamic presentations, and to collaborate on massive data analysis.

Though primarily intended for scientific research, TACC offers these display capabilities to students, artists, and humanities researchers, as well as to University officials, who now frequently showcase the lab on VIP tours. As a consequence of this openness, Vislab usage has increased dramatically.

From analyses of brain scans to student film festivals, the lab is now a hub for novel research and presentations across the sciences and humanities. Below are a few examples of the innovative and creative use of the Vislab.

Chandrajit Bajaj understands the value of seeing science at the largest and smallest scales.

Mice neuropil studied by Dr. Bajaj's group, as viewed on Stallion.

Bajaj, a professor of computer science, computational applied mathematics chair of visualization, and director of Center for Computational Visualization at the university, uses the Vislab for a series of research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health to derive insights about the molecular nature of learning and memory, and to speed the development of new HIV molecular inhibitors

In the first project, Bajaj and his group, in conjunction with Drs. Kristen Harris and Dan Johnston of Neurobiology and the Center for Learning and Memory, are creating an electronic circuit diagram of the brain. Bajaj and co-workers have developed a computational method that transforms incredibly high-resolution microscopy scans of a mouse brain — a part of the hippocampus believed to be important in memory — into a wiring diagram of the type used by electrical engineers. Because the microscopy technology used to explore the hippocampus creates images of incredible size and resolution, the Stallion tiled display in the Vislab was the only place where Bajaj and his group could see the multi-Gigapixel images at full nanometer-resolution scale.

"The spatial realism is important because these dendrites have tiny spiny features that are seemingly all essential in making electrical connections with its neighboring axons," said Bajaj.

The images Bajaj studied showed multitudes of neurotransmitters passing between thorn-like molecular receptors on spiny, branching neurons. Visualizing these structures on Stallion helped the group validate the brain diagram automatically created by the computer and better understand the learning behavior of the brain in the process.

"It's a way to prove that our automatic algorithm has not erred too far in either its connections or in its geometric reconstruction," he explained.

Bajaj's second project used Stallion to display different phases of the HIV lifecycle in order to find new ways to disrupt its replication.

"Visualizing these molecular inhibitors, obtained by a screening/docking program that we have developed, helps us see whether the binding sites are correct, and also to explore the neighborhood around a predicted binding site," he said. "Visualization inspires new ideas for adding to, or modifying, these molecular inhibitors or drugs to improve their binding affinity."

Just as Bajaj's project seeks to create a more detailed electrical diagram for the brain, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) seeks to improve electrical monitoring and diagnostic capabilities for Texas's electrical power grid.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the flow of electric power to 22 million Texas customers - representing 85 percent of the state's electric load and 75 percent of the Texas land area.

More than 150 staff and researchers who deal with power management in the state met in the Vislab in February 2010 to showcase how new tools developed by Electric Power Group (EPG) are used by the agency. The tools show the health of the entire electrical system, and help pinpoint problems and predict their impact.

On Stallion, the group viewed an interconnection wide situational awareness dashboard using EPG's Real Time Dynamics Monitoring System (RTDMS®) that showed how the ERCOT power system was behaving in real time. Simultaneously, on Mustang, EPG's Power Grid Dynamics Analyzer (PGDA™) software drilled down to a particular substation where an event was being replayed, while the workstations performed detailed analyses to determine what the event was, and what caused the problem.

"Visualizing the real time dashboard on Stallion brought out the power of visualization technology for mission critical power grid dynamics monitoring. The visualization provided MRI quality situational awareness as opposed to traditional XRAY type visibility," said Dr. Simon Mo, lead researcher at the Electric Power Group. "Instead of seeing the data on a small screen, we were able to look at the visualizations in high-resolution, so we could easily figure out what was going on."

The group reviewed an event that occurred in January when an 800-megawatt generator failed. "They used the analysis tool to conclude that, even though there was an event, the system was still in the operational margin and wasn't dangerous," said Mo.

The ability to show many large, related images at one time can have dramatic results. This was the case for Marcus Gary, a recent PhD from the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University, who used the Vislab to present his dissertation defense.

Using all the screens available in the lab, Gary displayed dozens of animations, visualizations, maps, and photos simultaneously, to evoke the maximum "wow-factor."

"The impact was phenomenal," said Gary. "Many of the scientists who attended said, ‘that was the most spectacular defense I've ever seen.'"

A view of Marcus Gary's dissertation defense in the VisLab.

The technology allowed Gary to compress a tremendous amount of visual data into a short presentation, multiplying the amount of information conveyed.

"The ability to show data, images, and information in multiple formats simultaneously made the communication of complicated scientific concepts more effective," said Gary, "particularly to an audience with varied technical backgrounds."

These, and other events — film screenings, VIP tours, photography exhibitions (see below) and classroom instruction — have made the Vislab a hub for research and creative activity on campus. Moreover, the technology of the Vislab has inspired other universities and research centers, including UT-San Antonio, to develop similar tiled-displays.

"I always imagined that people would use the Vislab for science and to interact with the data to make new discoveries," said Gaither. " What I didn't imagine was how easily the instructors and students would incorporate the Vislab into their teaching and learning."

This fulfills TACC's mission of making the lab as flexible and useful as possible to a broad audience, powering discoveries – and acts of creative expression – that change the world.

Story Highlights

Since 2008, the Visualization Laboratory on The University of Texas at Austin campus has become a hub for scientific and creative research.

The VisLab houses some of the University's most advanced and dramatic displays, includingBronco, UT's most powerful video projector, and Stallion, the highest-resolution tiled display in the world.

Researchers across all disciplines use the VisLab for data exploration, multimedia presentations, remote collaboration, and classroom instruction. Most recently, the VisLab played host to an exhibit of digital photography and video.


Faith Singer-Villalobos

Communications Manager | 512-232-5771

Aaron Dubrow

Science And Technology Writer

Jorge Salazar

Technical Writer/Editor | 512-475-9411