Seeing Is Believing
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 9: (October 2010)

Seeing Is Believing

The idea of visualizing computer-generated models before actually building them was conceived by the automotive and airplane industries in 1950. The demand and need for better, bigger, and faster visualization systems grew as fast as the ability to provide them. Visualization systems let users test atomic bombs without all that messy radiation and noise, fly airplanes that aren’t built, find oil a mile or more underground, and examine the insides of 2000- year-old mummies.

Visualization systems can mean different things to different people, so to avoid confusion and controversy, I make a distinction between large-scale and localized visualization systems. A localized system, by my definition, is a single monitor used by an investigator and may be shown to colleagues on occasion. Visualization systems employing voxels for medical research, such as a Toshiba Medical Visualization System, is a typical example, as are individual product life-cycle management (PLM) visualization systems, like those from Siemens.

Today, semi-custom panoramic projector display systems, such as this one from Scalable Display Technologies, offers an immersive experience at a moderate price.

Visualization systems are often confused with simulation systems. For example, in finite-element analysis (FEA), a mathematical simulation is made, typically of a stressed component such as a beam, and then visualized for the stress points, which are often displayed in pseudo colors to highlight the effect. Large-scale visualization systems, on the other hand, employ two or more displays, or projectors, and can occupy an entire desktop, a wall, or an entire room (an example is a Cave). When dealing with a visualization wall, further definitions are required. Is the visualization wall strictly computer-generated, a mix of CG and video, or just video. These types of visualization systems typically get defined as command and control (or CCD, in which the D stands for “decision”), signage, situational, and scientific or engineering visualization. Video walls are a completely different system.

The situational and scientific or engineering visualization systems are, to my way of thinking, the most interesting because they involve the highest degree of computer resolution and display capabilities. Often, these visualization systems provide stereo graphic capability (S3D.)

Today’s Vis Systems

In the past, around 1990, large-scale visualization systems were built by Evans and Sutherland, SGI, and various military contractors, such as General Electric, Lockheed, and Mechdyne. These systems sold for between $100,000 and a few million dollars. These prices were a result of installation as well as low-volume, state-of-the-art equipment, such as highresolution, bright projectors, large, powerful workstations, and custom software.

Once the domain of the auto industry, visualization systems today play a key role in many diverse industries.

Today, it’s possible to replicate those expensive systems for less than $20,000 (not including physical installation and modifications). And that brings me to the thesis of this discussion: the amazing visualization capabilities offered today on the PC from AMD and Nvidia.

There are various ways to display a largescale visualization system. The simplest and least-expensive method is to use commercial off-the-shelf LCD or plasma displays. Highresolution and extremely bright projectors can also be used if a greater distance between the display and the viewer is required—such as in a situation room or theater. In between those two examples are semi-custom panoramic projector display systems, like those offered by Scalable Display Technologies and Ostendo.

Large-scale visualization systems of the 1990s and early 2000 were called “image generators” (and, in some circles, are still called that). Today’s image generators are simply graphics add-in boards (AIBs).

Currently, you can purchase for $479 an AMD Radeon 5870 Eyefinity 6 AIB that can drive six 1920x1080 displays, which could be as small as 17 inches or as large as 60 inches each. Envision a wall comprising six 60-inch plasma HD screens. The cost of such a system would be $10,800 for the displays, $479 for the AIB, $2000 for the PC, $600 for cables, and $10,000 for some type of visualization software. Total system cost? $23,879. Truly amazing.

Vis systems have been extremely valuable in the scientific and engineering industries.

If you want to add another dimension to the visualization system, then you have to put a little bit more money into the displays and the AIBs. Nvidia offers an S3D surround system that can drive three 120 hz displays with up to 2560x1600 resolution. Large-screen LCD and plasma TVs are being offered now with 120 hz to 240 hz refresh and could be wall mounted to provide a very large threepanel stereographic visualization system. The estimated cost of the system would be just $16,000: $2700 for three 46-inch 1080p 120 hz displays, $1000 for the Nvidia GTX 480 AIBs (note that it is possible to do this with Nvidia’s new lower-cost GTX 465 AIB), a PC for $2000, $300 for cables, and $10,000 for software. Unbelievable.

These are the next-generation, or maybe this-generation, powerful visualization systems. If projectors are preferred over monitors, the cost will go up: The personalized panoramic displays typically sell for $10,000 each, and a Sony SXRD projector will set you back $5000. But even with more expensive displays, vis systems can be built for a fraction of what it would have cost five years ago.

As a result of these new economies and capabilities, I predict we will see a resurgence in the visualization market, indicating a cost elasticity that few believed was there.

Visualization systems can range from lessexpensive solutions created with off-the-shelf hardware and software, to semi-custom systems priced in the mid-range, to high-end customizable solutions that are quite costly.

I’ve been testing the systems in the lab here at Jon Peddie Research using commercial offthe- shelf simulation programs known as FPS games. I’ve run FPS simulation programs on a six-monitor API system, and S3D FPS simulation programs on an Nvidia S3D surround system. In both cases, I was extremely satisfied with the performance, and the only complaint I have concerns the size of the bezels. Companies like NEC have developed 46- and 55-inch bezel-less 1080p displays ($999 and $1499, respectively) for signage applications, which could easily be employed in a visualization system. Currently, the NEC displays are only 60 hz, but it shouldn’t be a big problem to move to 120 hz panels.

So, welcome to the new world of democratized visualization systems. Now, every researcher, designer, geophysicist, traffic engineer, or military commander can have an affordable, powerful, highly functional, and maybe even portable, visualization system.

Jon Peddie is president of Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia that also publishes JPR’s “TechWatch.” He can be reached at