Wall of Screens Sparks Opportunity
Deep within the Calit2 building in the engineering department of UC Irvine lies a new face in computer technology. The Highly Interactive Paralyzed display wall (HIPerwall) is utilized for the computer science field and much more.
Originally designed by UC San Diego Professor Falko Kuester, the HIPerwall is a 200-megapixel display wall built using 50 30-inch Apple Cinema Displays and 25 Power Mac G5 computers. However, while the materials used to build the HIPerwall are not necessarily revolutionary, the software behind it is.
According to Assistant Professor Stephen Jenks, there were three primary reasons for building the system – to explore data, for film or video innovation and to view huge images in great detail or many smaller images simultaneously.
While this sounds like a simple project that an ordinary computer can accomplish, viewing data on an average desktop and viewing data on the HIPerwall provide two entirely different experiences due to the wall’s capacity for both massive size and detail.
“The problem with something like a projector,” Jenks said, “is that projectors have far too low resolution. Most projectors have one megapixel or the really expensive ones have two megapixels, unless you spend $100,000. That is much smaller than even one of our systems.”
According to both Jenks and Dr. Sung-Jin Kim, who helped in creating the HIPerwall, the only possible present solution was to build a wall of computer monitors with a software to allow each screen to display only a piece of a huge and detailed image. The challenge in this, however, is when moving an image, the picture must be cut into tiles and when the image is moved, the tiles must know what parts of the image to display or not display.
Other advantages of the HIPerwall include its ability to view extremely large data sets in 3-D.
“The underlying theme is always the same,” Assistant Professor Joerg Meyer said. “The main topic is large-scale visualization. The wall is 200 megapixels but now that we’ve made it 3-D it’s a voxel. Pixel is short for picture element, voxel is short for volume element so now we have the small cubes. Now that we have depth also, we have a much wider range so it turns out we have 800 mega voxels that we can display.”
This data allows, for example, a look at the 3-D image of a monkey brain, and enables one to view the brain in its entirety while simultaneously seeing individual brain cells.
The HIPerwall allows development in multiple fields outside the technological world. One of the primary beneficiaries is the biomedical department. On or off-campus researchers have the ability to request use of the HIPerwall in order to view data or conduct studies.
For example, in the psychology department, one study was done using FMRI scans of 50 schizophrenia patients, which were then displayed on the wall to be compared side-by-side simultaneously, providing much more freedom for the researchers who were not forced to study the slides on a light table, restricted by less detail and forced to look at only several of the images at once.
Other people taking advantage of the new technology include the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center’s Peter Donovan, who is using the HIPerwall to take a closer look at stem cells.
Professor of ophthalmology James Jester is using the HIPerwall to examine different parts of the eye’s cornea and its structural fibers in order to gain a better understanding of how laser eye surgery can be conducted.
The creators of HIPerwall typically determine the order in which researchers use the wall by choosing the project that will have the biggest impact on society.
Perhaps one of the most important research projects involving the HIPerwall is the Beckman Laser Institute’s work in studying cardiovascular disease – one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. According to Meyer, they are working on something called optical coherence tomography (OCT) to provide a high-resolution image of the tissue so that they can see the inner surface of the blood vessel, view where the plaque from cholesterol develops and determine which areas are more or less prone to attracting that plaque.
However, the use of the wall extends even beyond the realm of research, including planning military strategies by viewing multiple large and detailed images such as maps, grids, satellite photos or radar.
On the other hand, the wall could also be helpful in organizing humanitarian aid. Jenks demonstrated the potential for this using a large, clear photo of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Viewers could see even the tiny roads obstructed by remnants of a house that had been strewn across the ground by the disaster.
With the HIPerwall’s ability to see every detail without having to zoom in and lose part of the image, a rescue team could easily view which roads to avoid or take, which parts of the city had possible survivors or which parts were too damaged.
The HIPerwall may eventually also benefit UCI financially. The first wall, which was paid for primarily by the National Science Foundation, consisted of 25 Apple computers. Now, however, the Calit2 lab has two HIPerwalls, the second of which is slightly more pixilated but brighter; this wall was shipped back to UCI by Samsung in May after being shown at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas.
Although the goal of the company run by Jenks and Kim is to create software for Samsung or make and support software for Stanford, they do not want to be “tech support” in the wall’s commercialization. However, due to the support of Samsung and Stanford, the walls are now on the market.
“We are researchers,” Jenks said, “we work with people, we come up with interesting ideas, interesting technology and someone else will sell it. We, the company, have this product licensed to UCI and sublicensed to Samsung so with every one of these sold, UCI is going to get money.”
However, while the HIPerwall is currently the height of technology, researchers agree that it is hardly the way of the future. Bezels, or the individual frames surrounding each of the computer monitors, present problems and are not as attractive to view as a whole screen.
The future will hold organic electroluminescent displays (OEDs), which omit light when they introduce the wave themselves, so they can be very thin.
Jenks predicts that in 10 years, the wall will be used as the primary communication device in all houses.
“You’re going to be able to get a big panel of this electroluminescent stuff that will just be on your wall … because you don’t want tiny little computer screens, you want a massive high-resolution TV, computer device and communications device. All those things can be innovated and it has to be very high-resolution. It will have to be driven by multiple monitors just because of the laws of physics on these wires. The future will be a single unified-looking display, but it will still have to be built using the same technology,” Jenks said.
While the only current solution is to use a distributor rendering system and take multiple computers where each one drives a certain section of the display, HIPerwall is being used as a stepping stool.
“It is necessary to do that so that once the entire resolution displays become more complex, researchers will have the technology ready to use them,” Meyer said.