Virtual Landscape: A Fantastic Human Voyage

Java 3D language lets researchers tap sophisticated visualization

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

April 13, 2002

2 Min Read

In a small Calgary lab, researchers are stepping inside the human body. They're getting a peek at Java-based visualization technology that may one day show them 3-D models of diseases advancing through the body. For now, the medical faculty at the University of Calgary, in Alberta, is starting three projects--a single-cell simulation, a cancer-cell simulation, and a model human sliced into 1,000 pieces--that will make them world leaders in bioinformatics, an emerging field of life sciences that organizes and maps complex information ranging from the human genome sequence to cell structures.

"The human body is much more complex than anything else on earth. To model it, you need the largest computers you can get," says Christoph Sensen, a biochemistry and molecular biology professor who heads the effort.

The Cave Automated Virtual Environment, housed in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room, is the first to use applications written in the Java 3D programming language. It's also the first that lets researchers outside automotive, airplane, and weapons-manufacturing companies use visualization technology.

Java is critical because it lets scientists remotely develop applications on hardware different from the hardware that will display the graphics, Sensen says. Other graphics APIs, including C and C++, require programmers to develop apps on the same hardware that will display the graphics. The Java Virtual Machine lets a Java application run on any operating system.

Sun Microsystems provided Expert 3D graphics accelerators and StorEdge T3 disk arrays, which store 5 terabytes of data, and a Sun Fire 6800 server with 20 UltraSparc III microprocessors. Fakespace Systems Inc. made the display screens on the walls and floor. The cost: $8.2 million to build and operate the facility for three years.

Sun offered no details about other Cave projects. But next year when NASA sends robotic explorers to Mars, the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will rely on Java 3D to create programs for public viewing.

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