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Universities Link Up for Computer Simulations

Source: Austin American-Statesman, August 25, 1996
By Dick Stanley

Pilots must "fly" computer simulators over and over again before being turned loose with a jetliner full of people.

Today's surgeons have far fewer opportunities to practice before trying their skills on patients. But what if they could use a 3-D computer simulator -- something like a virtual reality game -- to become proficient?

That's one of the goals of a collaboration among scientists at three Houston universities and the University of Texas. This month, they joined a new National Science Foundation research program that will let them try out the surgical simulator and other ideas.

As a side benefit, the program involving an initial 13 American universities is expected to make the Internet speedier and friendlier to multimedia such as television after 2000.

The Texas collaboration, led by scientists at Rice University in Houston, will link colleagues at Rice, the University of Houston and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to a national computer research network called the very high-speed Backbone Network Service, or vBNS.

The science foundation gave the Houston schools more than $1 million to pay for equipment for the connections. Their scientists will cooperate on research with Mary Wheeler, a UT engineer, although it could be a year before UT joins the computer network.

"There'll be another round of grant applications, and the university is planning to compete then," Wheeler said.

The high-speed computer network, which is operated by the National Science Foundation and MCI Telecommunications Corp., combines the computing power of five supercomputers at national supercomputing centers around the country. The network offers scientists speed and data capacity for computer research far beyond what is now available on the Internet or its increasingly congested, more consumer-friendly component, the World Wide Web.

"Think of the computing power of the nation cobbled together on this vBNS system into a big, computing engine," said Ken Kennedy, a Rice computer scientist.

Kennedy is a leader of the Texas collaboration in which Rice will develop the software infrastructure, UH will provide its virtual reality lab and Baylor will try out ideas such as the surgical simulator.

While many home Web users today can retrieve pictures, text and crude, fuzzy videos through phone line modems with speeds ranging up to 28,800 bits a second, the high-speed network moves data around at 622 million bits a second. Within a few years, it's expected to do it at 2.2 trillion bits a second.

Such tremendous speed is needed, for instance, to create a 3-D, color computer simulation of surgery on a human temporal bone. The bone, one of a pair in the skull, contains the inner ear, for hearing and balance, and nerves that control muscles in the face.

Today, surgeons-in-training get only a few tries on temporal bones willed to medical schools to learn how to correct problems with hearing and facial paralysis.

Ron Kuppersmith, a surgeon in residency at Baylor, will help develop a temporal bone simulator for the UH virtual reality lab called CAVE that's run jointly with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Teaching Tool

"It would be an awesome teaching tool," Kuppersmith said.

The CAVE, which stands for computer-aided virtual environment, is a 10-by-10-by-9-foot room in a building on the Gulf Freeway in Houston. Projection screens behind the room's walls and floor combine to create a graphical illusion that completely surrounds a viewer.

UH's CAVE has been used to train NASA astronauts to repair satellites in space. In the CAVE's virtual reality theater, users wear lightweight glasses that provide a stereo view and wield wandlike devices to "grab" objects in the illusion.

"It lets scientists see relationships that sometimes are virtually impossible to see with numbers alone," said Farrell Gerbode, director of computer network services at Rice.

Ecological Uses

Baylor researchers also hope to use the high-speed network's computing power to build a CAVE model of the molecular structure of the AIDS virus, to help scientists learn how to defeat it.

Wheeler, an expert in scientific modeling for desktop computers, has developed a model of Galveston Bay to aid in studies of the ecological effects of oil spills, commercial fishing and hurricanes.

She hopes to put a 3-D version of her bay model in the CAVE.

"Walking around inside there would give you a better understanding and appreciation for the details," she said.

While technologies such as the CAVE won't be commercially available for many years, scientists expect desktop versions to be offered someday on commercial Web sites.

That has been the history of the Internet. It was developed by scientists for their research. As technologies became available for things such as text and picture publishing, they were adopted for private use.

"We expect to see similar things happen with what we develop on the vBNS," Kennedy said.

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