Tuesday, May 27, 2003

3D Visualization Centers: On the verge of a breakthrough
Susan Smith Nash

Oil and gas presentations using maps, cross-sections, and traditional approaches will soon be obsolete. This is the consensus of experts in the geosciences, who include Tiffany Tyler, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation's technology strategist, who obtained her doctorate through the University of Manchester's PREST program.

When one thinks of 3D visualization centers, one usually thinks of the multi-million dollar centers found in the military, petroleum industry, major hospitals and research centers, engineering, and architectural firms. They take a lot of money, time and resources. Unfortunately, they scream instant obsolescence. Many universities, conference halls, and municipal centers have early versions of these big rooms, loaded with projection equipment, screens, and dated hardware. They were great at the time. Now they are incompatible with everything. The entities who made the huge investments are finding that they are quickly losing their clients and markets to new 3D visualization centers.

However, that may be about to change, due to
-1- Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) using edge computing, such as Akamai
-2- Thin-client software which would allow one to log in and run the application from remote servers
-3- 64-bit workstations
-4- Lower-cost projection technology, which can also be mobile

In the near future, forward-thinking universities and conference centers will be able to offer the 3D visualization services for training, review, and presentation purposes. The muscle behind the presentation will be housed on a remote application server, and the content housed on the "edge." The interface between server and user will be thin-client software.

This represents a huge business opportunity for those who are willing to understand how this can work for them, then manage the project in a cost-effective way so that the deliverables -- the presentation space -- are 100% reliable and secure.

Environment Construction
Fakespace is one of the most trusted and respected names in 3D visualization. The military uses them for everything from logistics, vehicle design and training, to architecture redesigns for housing, offices, and mobile units.
Fakespace pioneered the "cave" concept, which is now the standard viewing experience. It's gaming and the sim environment on steroids. Here's what Fakespace says about the CAVE:
The CAVE environment is an enclosed room that can hold up to six people. It’s typically configured with rear-projected screens on three walls and the floor. Additional screens can be added on the ceiling and rear wall if desired. The RAVE system has configurable screens, each measuring 8 feet by 10 feet. Hinges let the screens fold to form a cave, be set up side by side to make a very large wall, or be put together in any other configuration desired. Fakespace recently announced a planned merger with its biggest competitor, Mechdyne Corp.—making the joined companies the largest suppliers of integrated hardware solutions for immersive visualization. "Integrated" means solutions from computer connectors (and even computers, if desired) through the software interface. This includes software for stereo viewing, and active stereo shutter eyeglasses.

Quite a few companies have installed their own CAVEs. British Petroleum has their own CAVEs, dubbed HIVEs, sprinkled around the world, from Baku, Azerbaijan to Calgary, Canada. They use them for displaying 3D seismic, engineering, and geological data for decision-making in construction, production, drilling, and pipeline construction.

SGI Reality Center
The SGI Reality Center bills itself as "the ultimate in group collaboration" -- no one could possibly disagree. They are amazing. One has to wonder about what it takes to generate the data needed to create and project the images. They are great at replayable "displays" -- for example, museums who want to give patrons a "gee whiz" experience of exploring, for example, a catacomb or an Egyptian pyramid. However, as people begin to understand how to use enhanced spectral processing of regular data, and how to train neural networks on various patterns and relationships of data, this will absolutely change. The museum patrons can experience what it would be like to go more deeply into the place, with multiple scenarios. It's perfect for training for urban warfare, SWAT teams, etc. It also has applications in energy, museums, manufacturing, military and defense.

In the near future, the SGI Reality Center could utilize lower-cost modular equipment, that can be brought to a meeting or conference, then thin-client down to individuals' palms or laptops for distance collaborations, imagine the possibilities.

Basic hardware
Hewlett-Packard Visualization Workstations
Wonderful, but scary. The Instant Obsolescence Beast is truly lurking here, like Duessa straight out of Spenser's The Faerie Queene's. HP drives many of the CAVE environments, and they are a premier provider. I would be afraid -- very afraid -- to invest in the workstations as they are now. I would wait for the new 64-bit ones, to liberate one from the need for super-computing.

SGI Onyx Visualization Stations
SGI has state-of-the-art medical visualization capabilities. This is one of the breakthroughs that helps us make such amazing advances. Eventually, they will become more mobile and information can be sent out to remote locations. No longer will such systems be the exclusive purview of the rich, HMO-owned hospital chains. Even the small clinic will have access. If you have lots and lots of insurance, you too, will be able to see your own heart, imaged out on a wall. I can't help but think of multi-tasking and multiple uses. See your own heart pulled out by an Aztec high priest who explains to you that your blood pouring down the steps helps keep the world in balance -- then time-travel and see a doctor transplant in Houston transplant your still-beating heart into another person -- then zip forward a couple of decades and see that same heart be ripped out again as you, the oil executive, have just recommended drilling a series of wells (based on 3D visualization results) that turned out to be non-productive. Then your significant other rips it out again as you are dumped yet again for being such a loser... Okay. That's going too far. A good game, right? No! It's too much like life!

Ah. Let's get serious again.

Display Products and Services
Christie Mirage DLP Stero Projection Systems

Christie's was the company that helped develop the world's first mobile command briefing center, which has been used in Washington, DC, in response to security issues. I suspect it was not a solution that the average university on a shoestring budget could afford. However, the prototype has been built, and it works. Using the same philosophies and procedures, it could be possible to build smaller, even more mobile ones, again using thin-client technology and edge computing.

Fakespace recently used display products and services to test armored vehicles. Pretty amazing. According to their development team, the collaborative approach they used will change the way we do work.
"The use of immersive visualization in the design and manufacturing process is as revolutionary as the assembly-line was in the first decade of the 20th century," said Dr. Bochenek. "Eventually, collaborative work with virtual prototypes will become an essential element to all vehicle and complex equipment design."

On another note, I think they could use this experience as a serious recruiting tool for the military. It looked like fun.

According to their press release, and reports by charged-up, highly enthusiastic geophysicists, Panoram debuted the brightest, sharpest, curved screen, 3D visualization display ever at the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) conference in Salt Lake City in 2002. Panoram's VisCenter is stunning. Right now, if you're in the mood to upgrade from your existing VisCenter system, you can save more than $60,000 on software upgrades, including the "Extreme Bandwidth Scaler." That price tag, along with the stated need for an "extreme bandwidth scaler" is enough to send cold chills down the spine of the average IT implementer. Whoever can bridge the technology gap between the have's and the have-not's by using the oft-mentioned technologies of thin-clienting and edge-computing will become a very rich lad or lad-ess indeed.

Total Display Solutions are leading-edge in the areas of flight and driving simulations for civilian and military purposes. These UK-based services are not quite as flashy as their US counterparts, but are extremely robust. Clearly, they get the job done. SEOS's Trimension Systems has an intriguing online demo and information page here: Trimension Systems Demo

The products, services, and new directions I've described briefly here should give you an idea of where we are and where we may be going. For me, I see it as a challenge and an opportunity to get to work and figure out how to make these technologies and approaches available to the smaller users. Once that happens, we'll start to see extreme breakthroughs in education, training, and everyday life.

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Bandwidth Future Shock and Akamai
Susan Smith Nash

I recently had an opportunity to attend a presentation by Akamai at a major university which is grudgingly facing the twin beasts of Bandwidth Hogs and Budget Cut Ghouls.

You may not be familiar with Akamai directly, but there is no doubt that you use Akamai's services. Akamai (means "cool" in Hawaiian) was started in 1999 as an project to place web content on servers throughout the world. The result is peak-shaving & load-sharing to manage traffic. The algorithms and basic philosophy remind me of the peak-shaving programs used by electricity providers to deal with high high demand periods. Although Akamai seems to be all about storage, it's not. It's all about traffic management, band-width-smoothing, and positioning content close to patterns of end-users so data goes through fewer intermediaries. I first found out about Akamai when I was watching on-demand news clips provided by abcnews.com

Akamai houses content on its servers. In the early phases, the content tended to be streaming media, and thus the news websites were early adopters. Later, Akamai was able to host applications servers.

Most recently, Akamai has been working with universities as the face new challenges with their computing systems.

The university in question, like probably every university in existence at this point in time, outgrew its Internet and intranet capacity about three years ago. This is not a popular reality. When the question comes up, the countering question invariably comes up -- "But didn't we raise our technology fees three years ago? Isn't that ENOUGH???"

Of course it's not. The demand for bandwidth-hogging giant applications has risen, and it's not just due to the old Napster-specter of file-sharing programs such as Kazaa, or music & video-on-demand programs such as launch.com and netflix.

At the same time, endowment fund portfolio values have collapsed with the stock market, and state and federal grants, allocations, and matching funds are drying up. Faculty and staff positions are not being filled, employees are faced with furloughs and pay cuts, while institution-financed health and retirement plans careen into the red. There is not enough money to service the existing needs, much less invest in adding additional services or infrastructure.

As everyone knows, server space is cheap, and it's not a big deal to house archived content on someone else's server. The issue is one of traffic, and bandwidth hogs.

Nevertheless, the need for the bandwidth-hogging services is expanding. Providing these services is not an option. It is a necessity.

What makes an application a bandwidth hog?

-a- Pages loaded with simultaneous applications that quantum-leap traffic. For example, student portal pages that pull in customized content -- "my weather," "my headlines," "my interest rates," "my commodities futures prices," "my celebrity scandal" content are amazing. They can send out 10 commands simultaneously, every time the page is "pinged."

-b- Parasite programs. These are the bane of the internet! Imagine a lurker program that is almost impossible to uninstall, that generates pop-ups and send commands to link to other sites, whenever a web-surfer hits a site that triggers the commands.

-c- E-mail programs with highly variable user trends (semester-based, enrollment based) -- with lots of attachments and embedded html and xml

-d- Encrypted, packetized data sent in "bursts" (often associated with SSL (secure) servers)

Big Bandwidth Hogs:

Online registration

Student portal programs

Integrated applications -- registrar, courseware, bursar

Interactive catalogues and curriculum / advisor checkers


Web content

So, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes not, the university has morphed into a vast patchwork quilt of outsourced components. It's not just content that's outsourced on other servers, it's also the various applications that tie into the main flows of information.

This makes an Akamai solution very difficult because it requires a certain amount of integration of applications. The pieces of the patchwork quilt must be stitched together by the same entity, and they must lie on the same bed for one to see any appreciable improvement in performance. Thus, Akamai would need to work with all the application providers. This could be time-consuming and costly.

We're now returning to the Budget Cut Ghouls. I think we need to stop looking at them as monsters, and see them as opportunities. For what? you ask. To have my still-beating heart ripped from my chest cavity? Well, if that's what you want ... (!) It's not necessary, though.

Akamai and other Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are business opportunities in the making. All you have to do is to find your product.

Unfortunately, Akamai does not take this route when making their presentations. Instead, they take the traditional sales approach, which is to focus on the product, the benefits, the cost. In the meeting I attended, no one dared articulate the big, unspoken question: "How can we buy this solution when we don't have the money?"

I kept hoping that Akamai would point out that every university is potentially an e-business tycoon. Every university possesses content and/or services that people are hungry to sign up for, if the price is right and the delivery is smooth. Akamai should show every university how to set up a business center that will cover its costs and serve as a cash cow for the money-losers.

Potential University Cash Cow E-business Facilitated by Akamai-type CDNs

These could ALL be fee-for-service products, paid via paypal or billpoint -- all online.

-1- Football games, clips, sports shows, coach interviews, recruiting tapes, etc. Market to alums and booster clubs. Create competition for ESPN.

-2- University pharmacy club. Online pharmaceutical sales for registered members (alums, etc.) Save on the high cost of prescription medicines with this co-op approach.

-3- University weight loss clinic. Weigh, get diet plans, measure fat, develop a yoga, pilates, weight and exercise program in the privacy of your own home. Download advanced yoga-pilates hybrid moves and stretches. Download customized chill-out tunes for yoga and meditation.

-4- University Job Placement. Why not ramp up this highly popular service and let it join the flipdog.com generation? In a down economy, this will boom.

-5- Sorority calendars. Virtual sorority carwashes. Imagine the potential. Profit-share with the sororities. Not quite "girls gone wild" -- make sure the women wash and wax only the coolest possible cars.

-6- Reservations and bookings online. Dorms? University hotels? University apartments? Let students tour online, make reservations, and order value-added service and items.

Okay. That's just a start. I think that the mood of the meeting I attended would have been a bit more upbeat if Akamai had shown us the way to create a cash cow to feed the hogs and the ghouls.