When it comes to technology, small is
definitely big. By the mid-1980s, electrical engineers and computer
specialists had succeeded in stuffing the 10,000-pound computer into
the 10-pound bag, and the trend toward tiny simply accelerated from
there. From razor-thin cell phones to MP3 players hardly larger than a
stick of gum, the devices we depend on for work and entertainment have
been put, quite literally, in the palms of our hands.
For some technologies, however, small size
can still be a drawback. Anyone who has leaned in close to his or her
computer screen trying to make out the details of a thumbnail photo or
undersized illustration can attest to the frustration little images
can cause. Limited image resolution and monitor size constraints have
been a serious hurdle for researchers, hampering their ability to
translate large sets of data into easy-to-interpret graphics.
Expansion programs and screen magnifiers
could offer grainy enlargements of smaller images, but researchers who
wanted to scrutinize their work in all of its oversized, densely
pixilated glory had nowhere to turn. Until now.
University of Maine Associate Professor of
Electrical and Computer Engineering Bruce Segee and his talented team
of student engineers have developed a visualization system for
computer images that allows users to combine multiple monitors to
create oversized images without sacrificing resolution. The system
promises computer users — from scientists to seventh graders — an
opportunity to see the big picture.
"A researcher could link together monitors
in parallel to look at data in the lab, or a middle school class could
coordinate its laptops to examine a Web page or work together on an
experiment," says Segee, as one of his undergrads adjusts the image on
a 4-foot-square assemblage of monitors in his lab. "It's high
performance, high resolution. It's a very powerful learning tool."
The work is partially supported by a
National Science Foundation Major Research Infrastructure grant,
awarded to Segee and several other UMaine researchers, including
Yifeng Zhu, also in electrical and computer engineering; James Fastook
of computer science; Huijiue Xue, Fei Chai and Steven Cousins in
marine sciences; Peter Koons in geodynamics; and Kiran Bhaganagar in
Segee's device, which utilizes special
software that divides the image and coordinates its distribution to
any number of monitors, is already proving to be a valuable tool for
scientists who specialize in computer modeling. Three-dimensional
images, created using thousands or even tens of thousands of data
points, can be easily viewed in their entirety on Segee's supersized
"In my research, what I display are
animations of ice sheets as they go through their theoretical cycles.
I look at a picture every 100 years or 500 years over the course of
the 100,000-year cycle, so I'm looking at at least 200 time slices.
That's a lot of pictures, representing an incredible amount of
numbers," says Fastook, UMaine computer science and climate change
"My work is totally dependent on computer
technology to provide a graphic display of what's happening. What
Bruce has done with his wall of monitors is provide a larger, higher
resolution display than I could buy, at a much lower cost than the
largest displays that are currently available. Not only can you view a
large picture and share it with a group, you can walk up close and
examine the fine details. It's a very nice device."
Segee is targeting the next generation of scientists and engineers as
well, working with Caleb Carter and Roger Blanchette, graduate
students in computer engineering; Adam Tibbetts and Brian Tomassetti,
undergraduates in electrical engineering; and Emily Albee, a graduate
student in education, to make the new visualization system a reality
for Maine's middle schoolers. He envisions a simple, easy-to-use
program that teachers could access through the Web, allowing them to
use their students' laptops in the same way that Segee uses linked
monitors in the lab.
From interactive maps of the world to
detailed diagrams of a microchip, a broad range of images could be
easily viewed by groups of students, offering an exciting new
perspective on learning.
"Middle schoolers don't need more to learn,
they need tools to help them do more with what they already have,"
says Segee, who was recently awarded the Butler Professorship in
Electrical and Computer Engineering.
"This project is not about the wall of
monitors, it's about what you can do with it."
Multiple-monitor visualization systems are
far from the first of Segee's forays into supersized computing
systems. Since 2001, he has been a driving force behind UMaine's
supercomputing program, when funding was used to build a 208-node
cluster supercomputer based on Pentium III processors. The
supercomputer's current incarnation, located in Target Technology
Center, boasts an IQ of more than 500 (measured in CPUs, of course).
It cranks out millions of computations per minute, 24 hours a day.
Originally developed for projects funded by
the military, the system is unique among supercomputers in that its
computational powers are based not in one specially designed device,
but in the collective capabilities of hundreds of off-the-shelf home
"At any given time, computers have a maximum
clock speed, a minimum transistor size and other limitations that
we're simply stuck with until the technology develops further," says Segee.
"What we have done here is push the operating speed faster than the
limit by using multiple computers (with) each (doing) a little piece
of the work. The big advantage of our supercomputer is that it is much
less expensive because it is made up of individual components that are
mass produced. The first supercomputer cluster that we built here
using the Army grant cost about half of what just the annual service
contract would cost for a single, custom-built supercomputer with
High-performance computing at the University of Maine has proven good
for business in the state. Corporate users include Applied Thermal
Sciences, a Sanford-based business that has been a valued partner
since the supercomputer's inception, assisting in the design,
characterization and tuning of the cluster.
Large companies also using the facilities
include giants such as Raytheon and Honeywell. Smaller companies
include DN American, Combustion Research and Flow Technology, and
ANGEL Secure Networks.
"Some companies prefer that we not publicize
what they do," says Segee.
"We do our best to balance the needs of a
business with the mission of a public university. We're a resource for
the state, we're here for everyone, but that doesn't mean we'll give
someone's trade secrets to their competitors."
Many companies find that the facilities at
the University of Maine allow them to do computations in a few days
that may otherwise take weeks or even years to run.
"A facility like this represents a major
investment in space, cooling and personnel to make it run," says Segee.
"It just makes a ton of sense for a business to worry about the
computation it wants to perform, and not how to build, house, power,
cool and maintain the computer to do it."
Humming away in its dark, air-conditioned
room, the UMaine supercomputer collective quietly does its work,
conducting millions of simulations and computations in electronically
coordinated harmony. At any given time, as many as 100 different
research projects are being conducted by the system, each one allotted
the necessary time and computing ability it requires according to an
automated master control.
The system is kept at maximum operating
efficiency by computer specialists John Koskie and Justin Bronder, who
monitor the supercomputer around the clock, making repairs and
adjustments whenever problems arise.
"We have so many different kinds of projects
go through here, it's incredible. From climate change to molecular
movement, from ice flows to hypersonic missiles, our clients are
modeling a huge range of processes," says Segee. "We have built a lot
on what we learned from that first cluster. Overall, it has been an
by David Munson
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