Foundation of the Hellenic World Uses Silicon Graphics Prism Systems to Design Immersive, Interactive Presentation for New Domed Theater
Late next year, Foundation of the Hellenic World's (FHW) innovative cultural center/museum, Hellenic Cosmos, will feature an immersive virtual tour of Agora, the heart of ancient Athens. For the development of this stunning Virtual Reality (VR) presentation in advance of the 2006 opening of a state-of-the-art immersive 128-seat domed theater, the Foundation of the Hellenic World (FHW), a not-for-profit cultural institution in Athens, Greece, selected visualization technology from Silicon Graphics (NYSE: SGI - News). FHW will use the SGI® system to add more animations and much more realistic graphics to the Agora presentation than its previous VR datasets. The final implementation solution will be decided at a later date.
The Agora's buildings were the center of public life, a site of political meetings, commercial transactions, the administrative center and also the judicial and religious center of the city. Socrates often met his disciples there, in the shade of the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios. The ruins of the Agora can be visited today, below the hill where the Acropolis stands, but for the first time, visitors and residents of Athens will be able to tour the ancient Agora immersively and interactively, filled with the living, breathing activities of its long history.
An SGI customer for many years, FHW expanded its permanent virtual exhibits at Hellenic Cosmos last year to coincide with the 2004 Summer Games. The Foundation opened three new exhibits, also created using SGI visualization technology, including an immersive 3D tour of Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, which has been enormously successful for the center. To create an even more spectacular virtual tour for the new domed theater, FHW purchased two Silicon Graphics Prism(TM) visualization systems, one with four ATI graphics processor units, a compositor and four Intel® Itanium® 2 processors running the Linux® environment. The second Silicon Graphics Prism system is a two-processor, two graphics pipe configuration that is being used for porting and testing applications.
"Our Ancient Olympia tour had 33 virtual buildings and, at about half a gigabyte, was double the size of our previous dataset; it was straining our 7-year-old system. We knew we had to move to a faster machine with bigger texture memory and bigger shared memory for the Ancient Agora, which has 43 buildings, plus we're planning much more interaction," said Athanasios Gaitatzes, head of the Virtual Reality Department, Foundation of the Hellenic World. "We also wanted to move all our existing productions onto the Linux environment of the Silicon Graphics Prism and see how the new graphics cards that SGI is using will work with our old data, and get some exposure to the new machine's new architecture. We looked at clusters and they are very painstaking to use. The Silicon Graphics Prism system was the only machine that could offer speed, shared memory, and graphics power, along with the compositor, where you can assign quadrants for projection."
FHW has just started designing the scenario and modeling the ancient buildings of the Agora on the Silicon Graphics Prism system. Artists and software developers at FHW use Softimage|3D(TM) and Softimage|XSI(TM) for modeling the 3D data and write their own framework for development of environments. OpenGL Performer(TM) is the main, underlying software at FHW. The OpenGL® graphics system specification, introduced by SGI in 1992, allows developers to incorporate a broad set of rendering, texture mapping, special effects and other powerful visualization functions and provides a graphics pipeline that allows unfettered access to graphics hardware acceleration. The OpenGL Shading Language supported by the ATI graphics cards in the Silicon Graphics Prism visualization system allows FHW to create the highest level of realism ever achieved.
Gaitatzes has already noticed that their software runs much easier, and that software written in the UNIX® environment is very compatible with the Silicon Graphics Prism system's Linux OS.
"Porting the Ancient Olympia presentation did not require a lot of changes at all and we expect that the Silicon Graphics Prism is going to make our life easier as developers," said Gaitatzes. "We have also discovered an unexpected benefit. For our interactive cave and an immersive desk environment, the audience uses wands that have one joystick and three buttons. The wands cost about $3,000 US each. We thought we would see how the Logitech® Rumblepad(TM), which has two joysticks, 10 buttons and costs only $50, interfaces with the Prism system. FHW's engineers actually got it to work, so in the lab we can move around in Ancient Olympia using one of those Rumblepads. We haven't tried it with our audiences yet, but it opens up a lot of possibilities for interaction."
Still in the specification stage, FHW is investigating stereoscopic capabilities for the dome theatre, which is under construction, and has not yet decided on the exact interaction devices.
"The Foundation of the Hellenic World has used SGI visualization technology for the design, development and exhibition of complex immersive and interactive 3D environments ever since they opened Hellenic Cosmos, and we are gratified they are now relying on the Silicon Graphics Prism visualization system to transport audiences to a time in history when the Agora was the center of democracy in Athens," said Shawn Underwood, director, Visual Systems Group, SGI. "Many museums and other interactive venues are discovering why professionals in the sciences, manufacturing and energy exploration fields have rapidly adopted the Silicon Graphics Prism system: the shared memory architecture delivers the robustness required for the most highly detailed visualization imaginable."