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Released January 22, 2003

At Southern Miss

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG – Imagine a research tool with limitless uses, with untold benefits to businesses, students, governments, patients and researchers.

With this tool, for instance, a doctor can stand in front of a wall of computer screens, put on special goggles, and take a virtual stroll through a patient's colon. Using the same apparatus, a special-forces unit can rehearse a hostage situation over the expanse of an entire city block -- all without leaving the room. Holding an electronic wand, a heart surgeon can perform a trial run on a patient with startling accuracy -- never making the first incision.

Sound far-fetched? Futuristic? In fact, students and researchers at The University of Southern Mississippi's Department of Computer Science and Statistics are already working with that very technology.

It's called 3-D immersive visualization, and it's coming to the High-Performance Visualization Laboratory at Southern Miss's Hattiesburg campus this summer.

"The applications (of this technology) are infinite," said Dr. Adel Ali, chair of the Department of Computer Science and Statistics, who will detail the project April 16 as part of Southern Miss's 2003 Lecture Series in the Sciences.

In June, when the lab begins installing its immersive visualization projection system -- a bank of 3-D computer screens used for virtual-reality research -- it will become one of the more salient aspects of the university's ever-expanding Computer Science Department.

Funded by the Department of Defense and a consortium of 10 departments at Southern Miss, the High-Performance Visualization Laboratory, or "vis lab," was built six months ago, joining together with a similar lab built at the Stennis Space Center in 1999 to form what's called the High Performance Visualization Center. Unlike Hattiesburg's lab, Stennis currently features an immersive visualization projection system.

Linked together by two ACCESS grid nodes and connected by OC3 high-speed Internet2, the vis labs allow researchers at both ends to work cooperatively on research projects. But the coupling is not limited to Southern Miss. In fact, the vis center lets students and researchers come together from around the world in a "virtual laboratory," where they can work together to solve large, complex research and development problems.

Created through an initiative by the Department of Computer Science and the Center for Higher Learning, the vis center aims to build the computational infrastructure needed for high-performance scientific and engineering visualization. With a price tag of about $700,000, the lab itself is equipped with 12 graphic and modeling workstations and an SGI 3400 rack-mounted supercomputer. The 1,700-square-foot lab is located in the Chain Technology Building.

Ali said it was vital to put one of the labs on the Hattiesburg campus so more faculty and students can participate in the visualization research of interest to both NASA and the DoD agencies located at Stennis.

"The vision of having two labs," said Ali, who helped found the visualization center three years ago, "was inspired by the obvious benefits of complementing the resources and the expertise at Stennis with the academic depth of the faculty on our main campus, to best serve our students and our state."

As directed by the HPVC Initiative, both sites at Stennis and at Hattiesburg collaborate closely with similar nodes at Mississippi State University, Jackson State University, the Naval Research Laboratory, the Naval Oceanographic Office and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Ali called the visualization laboratory the "workhorse" of the Computer Science department, which is the home of more than 320 undergraduate students and 30 graduate students. The establishment of the visualization research also was a major factor that motivated several Southern Miss undergraduates to join the department's graduate programs and helped in recruiting bright new students, Ali said.

"This is the classroom of the future," he said. "It combines the highest technological advancements with multimedia and supercomputers in one room – and the beauty of it all was doing it through an externally funded project.

"We just gave an example to show that budget cuts will not hinder us from moving forward. It gives students interested in getting a top-notch degree in computer science a chance to work with some of the latest cutting-edge technology," he added.

In the last three years, the Computer Science department has generated more than $4 million of externally funded research and development projects in the area of visualization alone. Because of those efforts, Ali said 10 different departments at Southern Miss have shown an interest in interdisciplinary research with the Computer Science department.

So how does another discipline benefit from the department's visualization lab? Pointing to a 3-D DNA molecule projected onto the lab's enormous screen, Ali explained, "Say someone in another department has the software to develop a certain simulation; we take that output and convert it so we can see it, which will give us a much better understanding of what it means."

The applications are wide-ranging, indeed. Already, Southern Miss has done work for Columbus Air Force Base, designing a virtual model of the base itself that is used to detect flight hazards. Students at the lab also have upgraded an oceanographic model of the Sea of Japan and worked on a host of medical research projects -- including research to visualize the entire human body three dimensionally.

"You can take a CAT scan of someone's blood vessels, apply a blood flow model specific to the individual and, since you can manipulate objects virtually, you can perform a bypass," said Ali. "You can observe the flow, and if you don't like it, when you bring in the real patient, you'll know 100 percent what's going to happen to the patient in advance.

"Or you could model the human colon from a scan, and actually walk into the display as a small person. You'd never even have to touch the patient," he explained.

Dr. Robert Lochhead, dean of the College of Science and Technology, said he was "proud of the leadership the Computer Science department has shown."

"This is one example of how students here in Mississippi can have career opportunities in ever greater numbers in this expanding field," he said.

Students seem as impressed with the facility as its beneficiaries do with the results. Mike Wilson, 18, of Jackson, said he did some "networking" before coming to Southern Miss, but never on this scale. "I was real excited to have access to all of this equipment," Jackson said.

Chad Saxon, a senior computer science major from Natchez, said the visualization lab was simply "awesome."

"I used to have to go to Stennis, and this allows me to just do all my work here -- and I can still communicate with the people at Stennis," he said.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM