Virtual Planning

Dec. 1, 2005
ASU facility uses virtual reality to help users plan for the future

By Sara Malone

Imagine knowing that you want to build a new development on an open parcel of land - and then being able to see the impact of your decision 50 years later.

The Arizona State University (ASU) Decision Center for the New Arizona allows users to do that, and much more, with its 3D, immersive computer graphics and modeling environment.

Known for its pioneering work on water use and conservation in the desert, ASU wanted to extend this knowledge to the community, delivering it to the decision-makers - including business leaders and government officials - who needed that information the most.

School officials also knew that graphs and charts can be hard to grasp, and so they decided it was time for a big leap forward. By creating a theater that displays 3D models that also incorporate the element of time, viewers can literally visualize the long-term impact of actions ranging from land development to biological contamination.

Cutting-Edge Visualization
The 11,620-square-foot, $6 million center, completed in May 2005, is a retrofit of a previously unoccupied retail space in downtown Tempe, AZ. RNL Design was tasked with turning the space into a next-generation theater and home for high-tech research.

Within the center, the pivotal element is the Decision Theater, where the high-tech visualization takes place. Also known as the Drum, the theater is like an IMAX movie in the round - or at least the three-quarters. Decisions about the interior included making sure the Drum was the proper size and shape to accommodate 270-degree screens and 3D technology. Circulation flows smoothly around its circular shape. Surrounding the theater are administrative, conference, and research spaces.

The Decision Theater allows decision-makers to explore the outcomes of possible scenarios of urban development, such as water availability, urban heating, land-use patterns, transportation networks, air quality, and homeland security. They also can meet with ASU scientists to discuss and explore environmental, economic, and social challenges, and to use this information to make informed decisions.

“We are connecting science to the community with this new facility,” says Decision Theater Executive Director Rick Shangraw. “The Decision Theater [is] an important resource for policy makers by providing interactive forums to identify and assess probable outcomes of real-world decisions, review the potential impacts of varying policy decisions, and provide visualizations of alternative scenarios and scientific analyses produced by complex and integrated computer models.”

One of the best features of the 3D technology is the simulation games, or “what-if” scenarios, which allow visitors to model and visualize otherwise unimaginable outcomes. For example, ASU researchers can simulate metropolitan Phoenix in the year 2040, when its population is expected to top 7 million people, by using the known and expected growth patterns and associated demands for water and other natural resources.

The facility uses cutting-edge technology to make this possible. Inside the Drum is a 270-degree, faceted screen with seven rear-projection passive stereo sources that can display panoramic computer graphics or 3D screen video content. The space holds up to 20 people and includes tools for collecting participant input and interaction.

Fakespace Systems Inc. of Marshalltown, IA, a leader in virtual reality and immersive environments, designed the hardware and set up the system. Fakespace ensured that the theater could incorporate and integrate complex multidimensional data from a variety of sources into models and simulations for display in an immersive environment.

Seven digital-image projectors beam stereo images onto seven high-definition screens to achieve the 270-degree image surround. The projectors are all synchronized to display the image. Two high-performance computing clusters drive the modeling and visualizations. A Linux-based nine-node cluster, which supports the rendering capability, uses high-capacity and high-resolution 3D video cards to deliver the stereo presentations. A 40-node, dual-processor computer cluster drives the computation necessary to model complex data and support the rendering engine.

Viewers at ASU can interact with the data. An inertial acoustic motion sensing and tracking system is mounted in the ceiling. These sensors track the position and orientation of a user who is wearing a pair of stereoscopic glasses outfitted with a tracking emitter. A hand-held virtual wand is tracked by the same technology. The wand has a thumb-sized “joystick” for navigation in the virtual world, while programmable buttons allow the user to move through a menu and make selections.

Fakespace is working on a pair of gloves that will interact with trackers installed in the ceiling. Once this is done, wearers will be able to point to the screen and move images. The tracking devices will also ensure that users have the best view of the models by changing the projection based on where they’re standing.

Standard keyboard and mouse control is also available, but Fakespace’s FIE (interaction engine) allows one mouse and keyboard to control the cursor and user input across the seven screens, even if several screens are driven by different computers. For example, if five screens are showing computer graphics from the cluster, one is showing a PowerPoint presentation from a standard Windows PC, and one is showing digital video from a Linux PC, FIE will allow one mouse and keyboard to operate seamlessly in each screen.

According to Fakespace professionals, Decision Theater is one of the highest performing and most state-of-the-art virtual reality systems in existence. It also has the largest number of stereoscopic imaging channels, with advanced high-resolution and high-brightness projectors of more than 10 million pixels (seven channels at 1400x1050 resolution and more than 7,000 lumens of brightness each).

In addition, Decision Theater uses one of the highest resolution and highest performance graphics cards in the world. The NVIDIA Quadro FX4400, an advanced PCI Express video graphics technology from NVIDIA Inc., has 512 MB of RAM on the graphics card alone. The computers have 2 GB of RAM each with dual processor Xeon at 3.4 GHz.

“Decision Theater is the largest theater of its kind, using seven faceted screens to create the 270 degrees of immersion,” says Jeff Brum, Fakespace’s vice president of marketing and business development. “Cluster computing is not unique but this is the first instance of these particular NVIDIA graphics cards being used for a graphics cluster of this scale.”

New, extremely bright 8,000 lumen active stereoscopic DLP projectors integrated with electronic shutters at the lenses create polarized light for the use of lightweight passive stereoscopic glasses, which are like eyeglasses. “That configuration was requested so the projector brightness was very high, allowing room lights to be on, so the audience would not have to wear heavier electronic shutter glasses. This method of creating passive stereo is also not unique but this was the first installation of these new projectors,” adds Brum.

Crucial to theater operation, two rooms house the computers and equipment that manipulate and project the data. An AV/server room houses the computer cluster that drives the seven screens. There is one computer for each screen, plus one master node to control graphics distribution and interaction such as the motion tracking. A separate room houses the computer(s) used for more basic functions like PowerPoint and digital video.

“There is both wired and wireless connectivity in the space,” says Carl Price, AIA, an RNL principal. “They’re using wireless controls to move through 3D, but there’s a tremendous amount of data in the Drum.

“A lot of things in this theater were custom built,” he adds. “ASU was waiting for the technology to be developed. For example, the seven screens and rear projectors were created and developed just for this space.”

The demands of the technology led to other issues for the space. One was acoustics: To reduce the noise levels from the seven projectors, the floor was carpeted and fabric was placed on some wall spaces to absorb sound.

Another concern was natural light. “Too much daylight is problematic for this theater,” notes Kate Diamond, FAIA, an RNL design principal. “When you come out of Decision Theater you want to be in a somewhat darkened area, because it’s a 270-degree environment where you’re wearing glasses in order to see some of the presentation. It takes a little while to adjust back to daylight and traditional distances.”

Research and Innovation at Decision Center
The design team began with a central question: What will it take to make the theater portion of this building work? Decision Theater was placed in the center of the space because of the column grid and other spatial issues. Because this was an existing building, the architects faced the challenges of limited power, limited HVAC systems, and limited floor-to-floor space.

In addition, because it is a public face for the university, the center needed to have the right kind of presence architecturally. The center spills out into a courtyard in a mixed-use complex, creating a welcoming entrance for visitors.

In harmony with the urban and technological aesthetic of the surrounding spaces, and the welcoming feel of the entrance lobby, the designers selected a desert palette throughout the center to echo the local environment.

“The Drum that holds both the technology and the working space for the Decision Theater fits right in the center of the main space,” explains Diamond. “The research support spaces surround it. The main lobby and the supporting large-scale conference room fit in front of it, facing the plaza outside of the building. This gives it the appropriate presence and expression.”

While the Decision Theater is really the hallmark piece, the center is also home to two other entities: the Decision Center for Desert Cities (DCDC) and the Edson Center for Student Initiative. ASU’s goal was to provide a seamless transition between the three departments, offering a collaborative research environment for decision-making, playing out scenarios, and building new ventures.

DCDC is one of three new National Science Foundation-funded centers to investigate human decision-making under climatic uncertainty. It is one of the Decision Theater’s key partners in developing insightful visual policy alternatives in the sustainability arena. Edson provides office space for teams of students across the university to explore ideas for business products and services in partnership with faculty, researchers, and successful entrepreneurs from both the academic and private sectors.

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