by Gerry Watson, July 2007
Visitors to the Charles C. Gates Planetarium in Denver, Colorado have never been wowed like this. Three-dimensional exhibits and short films, such as Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity, transport visitors to new and unseen places, enabling them to experience and virtually touch the universe in ways they never could before.
Creating these remarkable images is no easy task. It requires hundreds and even thousands of hours of programming and editing to produce the sensation of soaring through space, with planets and solar systems all around.
It also requires the highest-performance computer hardware to render and power these exhibits.
"The quality of visual effects in our planetarium is absolutely crucial to the overall visitor experience," says Dan Neafus, operations manager, Gates Planetarium. "With multi-core technology running on HP workstations, we can reach new heights in visualization, making the planetarium a true launch pad for visitors to gain new vistas and perspectives about the universe."
As Zachary Zager, the planetarium's system administrator notes, the Gates Planetarium no longer produces just dots on an overhead screen.
Planetarium exhibits offer breathtaking views
"We can have you fly anywhere in outer space and the solar system, have you floating with the planets and observing the universe from any point," he says. "We can even turn 180 degrees and dive to the micro-organic level, and show cells and organisms in three dimensions. Our only limit is our imagination."
The planetarium opened four years ago, and its design made use of a very large supercomputer that, at the time, was the only technology capable of rendering exhibit-class visualization, according to Neafus.
"What we realized very quickly is that sustaining supercomputer architecture is expensive, time-consuming and painstaking," says Neafus. "Even more troubling was the fact that it required an extremely high-level skill set for both operators and computer scientists to manage the architecture. It was extremely complex and challenging, just too rigid and demanding to work realistically as a long-term solution."
Neafus met with administrators at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the planetarium's parent body, and laid out a plan for preserving long-term quality and improving efficiency by looking at emerging technologies in computer hardware and software that could make life easier at the planetarium.
"We needed a more flexible and sustainable platform, pure and simple," says Neafus. "In terms of software we recognized that a dual approach was needed Linux for research-based and specialized scientific applications, and Windows to port to our system for digital rendering and image-based tasks.
"In terms of hardware, we needed to identify and build a relationship that could help sustain our operations long-term by supporting an ongoing update of capabilities, hardware and software. HP proved to be the right solution."
Equipped with Quad-Core Intel Xeon® processors and the new Intel Core 2 Extreme® QX6700 quad-core processors running on the new Intel 5000P chipset, HP xw8400 Workstations offer benchmark computing power and speed. The 5000P chipset provides 33-67 percent improvement in throughput over previous Intel chipset technology.
As the planetarium's programmers quickly discovered, these workstations, when processing in tandem, can deliver visual output to rival and surpass even the most robust supercomputing platforms.
The planetarium linked its HP workstations with digital projectors across the interior of the domed viewing room to create a region of virtual space, enabling visitors to explore the universe in a seamless, real-time environment that looks and feels like a real nighttime sky, with perspectives from the earth, from various stars and other fixed points across a virtual universe.
"Each HP workstation is dedicated to a different projector inside the planetarium," Zager explains. "Working together, they create a seamless image across the dome."
The planetarium has a core workstation that serves as the "master unit," creating the sense of space and processing images within the 3D software. It then sends images to the other computers, which in turn relay the data to the projectors, creating a real-time image of the universe from a specific point at a specific time.
As Neafus points out, the robust capabilities of the HP workstations help support the planetarium's technology and scientific learning goals.
"Staying ahead of the audience, per se, is not a competition. It's not about trying to outdo someone else. When we do our job by staying ahead of the technology curve, the cool factor is more than enough to get our audience excited about coming to the planetarium," says Neafus. "Our goal is to improve scientific literacy, to maintain programming that gets our audience motivated to learn more, to experience more.
"And we want to be as efficient as possible, from an operations perspective, about getting new, fresh content in front of the audience."
The HP workstations aren't used just for showcasing 3D displays. They are also used to develop and edit images for each exhibit.
As media systems developer Matt Brownell notes, the horsepower needed to render complex 3D images for the planetarium's displays is comparable to what's seen with cutting-edge computer games, where the finished products inch ever closer to the look and feel of real-life experiences.
"The way our real-time systems work is very similar to the gaming industry," says Brownell. "Our texture mapping and post-editing are very similar. We use a lot of the same technologies and the same three-dimensional libraries that high-end game developers use."
The planetarium's programmers and developers turn to HP workstations to accelerate the development process. The most dramatic improvement is in rendering time. According to Neafus, using its previous hardware the planetarium's staff would require up to 60 hours of editing and rendering with Adobe® After Effects® imaging software in order to develop a 10-second scene. Using HP Workstations, which are developed and tested with multiple software vendors including Adobe, this has been reduced to just a few hours.
"With the new equipment, it feels like we're about 50 times faster," Brownell comments. "It's so much easier to see frame rates and properties in real-time. We can access frames in about ten seconds. It used to take more than 60 seconds for them to load, and we could never really observe the frames in a real-time scenario."
The planetarium's on-site show development team includes only two developers, placing great emphasis on fast, efficient work. If projects fall behind or the team encounters unexpected complications, the results can force exhibits to be postponed and overextend project budgets and timelines.
"HP workstations have allowed us to process all of our imagery much, much faster, with a far quicker turnaround. We can do our work in much more timely fashion. It's a great relief," says Brownell.
Objective: Gates Planetarium needed powerful computers capable of efficiently running complex three-dimensional displays
Approach: Planetarium installed HP workstations
| ||HP workstations efficiently run complex, computing-intensive operations|
| ||Attractive, 3D displays draw more visitors|
| ||Reduction in time-intensive display support|
| ||Increased efficiency less time to render and edit images, more time spent enhancing innovative displays|
| ||Reliable, high-performance hardware leads to reduced service and support issues|
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