Scientists working collaboratively, at the same time, but in different locations around the world, can now do so thanks to ultra-high-speed, broadband networks and special software developed as part of a program funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation called the "OptIPuter."
But to make it work, they often need technical support people standing by.
Computer scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) — a key partner in the OptIPuter project — think the process should be more user-friendly. NSF has just awarded the UIC team a three-year, $1.9 million grant to make it happen.
EVL experts were instrumental in creating software that allows scientists gathered in remote locations to load huge amounts of digitalized data from supercomputers and visualize images, graphs or anything else on ultra-high-resolution, wall-sized display panels. Scientists at any participating site can manipulate that data, simulate, compare and learn things from this shared experience. Nearly 40 OptIPuter research centers around the globe, called OptIPortals, have been tested over the past few years and work very well.
"What we want to do now is turn this from a research project into a product people can easily use," says EVL member Andrew Johnson and associate professor of computer science at UIC. "We're really trying to 'harden' the software."
Johnson is a co-principal investigator on the project, along with Jason Leigh, associate professor of computer science, and EVL staffers Maxine Brown and Luc Renambot. Their plan is to make OptIPuter as simple to use as a personal computer desktop where you double-click an icon and an application starts to work.
"Just as personal computers are the portals to today's Internet, OptIPortals are the portals to the Super Internets of the future," says Leigh.
EVL has several goals. Besides making it just easier for anyone to use these collaborative networks, they hope to make it easier to run simulations and add data to a visual display wall using devices ranging from a typical laptop computer to the Blue Waters Petascale supercomputer being built at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They want to make it easier to edit or manipulate visualizations on the displays and stream additional data, which now can be hampered by things such as format conflicts. The product will also consider the types of workflow software packages commonly used by various scientific communities and make them compatible, rather than a source of conflict when a global network of scientists is connected and tries to get to work.
Johnson says the key problems are not really technical, but rather in designing software that operates the way users want it to operate.
"We need to understand how someone in, say, high-energy physics thinks and conducts scientific research. What's their normal way of working? How will they use this technology?" he says.
Johnson compares EVL's project to making the lens of a microscope or telescope. They're not building the whole instrument, but rather the key item that brings everything into focus.
"You can't make effective use of these large supercomputers or the networks of instruments we're laying out around the globe if we can't visualize what they are trying to tell us. This is the way big science is going to be done in the future."
The NSF award is funded under the federal government's economic stimulus plan, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.