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The vBNS Project and the Virtual Environment Technology Laboratory (VETL), University of Houston

The University of Houston (UH), recently named the seventh CRPC affiliated site, is at the forefront of computational research in high- performance computer networks and virtual environments for training, education, and scientific/engineering data visualization. The university is collaborating with other institutions on two current projects that are having great impact on the nation's advanced computational resources: the very high speed Backbone Network Service (vBNS) and the Virtual Environment Technology Laboratory (VETL).

The vBNS Connection

UH is part of a Texas consortium that recently received one of 13 National Science Foundation (NSF) awards for high-performance computer connections to the vBNS. Operated by the NSF and MCI Telecommunications Corporation, the vBNS combines the computing power of five national supercomputing centers to offer scientists speed and data capacity far beyond what is now available on the Internet.

The Texas collaboration, called the Houston Area Computational Science Consortium (HACSC), also includes researchers from Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Lennart Johnsson, computer science, mathematics, and electrical and computer engineering professor and department chair at UH, is the chair of HACSC (see "Parallel Profile"). Tony Gorry, Vice President for Information Technology at Rice, is the project leader. The group is using the vBNS to conduct computationally intensive research projects in areas like surgical simulation, 3-D modeling of molecular structures, computational steering of hydrocarbon reservoir models, and aircraft design. Led by CRPC Director Ken Kennedy, Rice researchers are developing the software infrastructure that will make such distributed computer systems usable.

The vBNS will enable researchers to experiment with network and supercomputer processing speeds in order to minimize transmission delay, as well as to make improvements in how supercomputers interface with one another. The network initially operated at 155 megabits (Mbps) per second, compared to speeds of up to around 45 Mbps for networks hooked into the Internet. Transmission speeds are projected to increase to speeds in excess of 2.2 gagabits per second within the next few years.


The VETL is a joint enterprise of UH and the NASA/Johnson Space Center. Located in Houston, the 12,000-square-foot laboratory is used to perform cutting-edge research and development on virtual environment technology. Headed by R. Bowen Loftin of UH, the lab features a complement of more than $3 million in high-performance computing and display equipment, including Silicon Graphics Onyx Reality Engine graphics supercomputers and a totally immersive CAVE for 3-D visualization of applications such as seismic interpretations, simulations of production platforms, and geophysical models of hydrocarbon reservoirs.

View from inside the CAVE
Image courtesy of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois at Chicago

The VETL is capable of displaying virtual environments via monitors, stereoscopic head-mounted displays (HMDs), and projection displays. A powerful suite of software tools allows the importation of a large number of data formats and 3-D objects. One of the latest projects is the optimization of human resource time through shared virtual environments (SVE). Through SVE, individuals in multiple locations are able to collaborate or train in the same virtual environment with near real-time interaction.

Educational activities at the VETL center on NSF-funded research on the use of virtual environments for science education. Participants of the CRPC's GirlTECH/MCSA, Spend a Summer with a Scientist, and Milby Science Institute programs at Rice had the opportunity to tour the VETL this summer to see how leading-edge research in virtual environment technology is being used in educational, energy, medical, and military applications.

For more information on the vBNS, see http://www.crpc.rice.edu/CRPC/vBNS . For more information on the VETL, see http://www.vetl.uh.edu /.

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