Visualization technology improves lab experience

Sarah Zakrajsek Feb 14, 2011

By May 2011, Carnegie Mellon’s civil and environmental engineering (CEE) department will be home to the IBM Smarter Infrastructure Lab. The lab will be comprised of three main components: a high-end analytics and computing center known as the “Cloud,” a videoconference collaboration lab, and the CAVE, a fully immersive, three-dimensional interactive environment. The videoconference lab will enhance already existing connections between Carnegie Mellon researchers and their partners across the country and around the world.

The CAVE is the latest 3-D visualization technology from EON Reality, Inc. This three-dimensional environment, called the ICube, will consist of three rear-projection walls to display images portraying the desired environment. The ICube will provide a new interface for viewing data, including MATLAB or GIS plans for new construction, CAD designs for a jet plane, and even the anatomy of the human body.

The IBM Smarter Infrastructure Lab will primarily be used for CEE researchers and students, but its visualization capabilities can aid other researchers as well.
Emily Walker, a junior materials science major, said, “If they expanded this technology to model a product, a crystal, or a circuit, it would be good for people in other engineering departments too.”

According to the EON website, users wearing lightweight glasses with infrared tracking will be able to move freely about the ICube as the system monitors their position and orientation within the environment. Then, the technology will stream stereoscopic images of the virtual environment onto the walls taking the user’s changing perspective into account.

The IBM Smarter Infrastructure Lab CAVE will accept user input via an Xbox controller.

The Smarter Infrastructure Lab will be just one component of a greater initiative: the Pennsylvania Smart Infrastructure Incubator (PSII). The PSII is co-sponsored by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, IBM, and the aircraft manufacturing company Bombardier, Inc.

These sponsors’ donations will directly enrich Carnegie Mellon’s own research and graduate programs in the smart infrastructure area that spans a number of departments and colleges, especially that of the Advanced Infrastructure Systems (AIS) program in CEE.

CEE faculty members in the AIS group include the CEE department head, James H. Garrett Jr., along with Burcu Akinci, Mario Bergés, Irving Oppenheim, Lucio Soibelman, Scott Matthews, Chris Hendrickson, and Susan Finger.

According to Garrett and Soibelman, the central focuses of AIS research include infrastructure and facilities design, construction, and operations.
The research field encompasses both the built environment and the natural environment.

“We’re exploring how sensing, information modeling, information management, data mining, and intelligent-decision support can be applied to the processes of constructing and managing infrastructure,” Garrett said.

Cataloging the existing cracks in the sewer pipeline system, knowing the stress and strain capacities of public bridges, and accurately predicting the costs of future road repairs are all important to city policy-makers and contractors.

“Our infrastructure is in bad shape. There doesn’t seem to be enough money available to truly address all the different demands for replacement of that infrastructure,” Garrett said, while explaining that emergency response costs up to three times as much as planned response and repair. “So information is key. It’s why IBM is very interested in this area.”

Soibelman added that it is a civil engineer’s ability to delay expenditures and optimize repairs. “People think about installing sensors on a bridge to be used as an alarm that the bridge is about to collapse.... But I could add sensors in bridges that the city is planning to destroy ... and by the sensor I can prove that I can use this bridge for several more years in a safe way.”

Both Garrett and Soibelman agreed that collecting, analyzing, and visualizing information are important processes in civil engineering. They believe that the IBM Smarter Infrastructure Lab will help them and their colleagues to present and transmit data in a clear, concise manner.

“All this information will be integrated and able to be visualized in ways that will help decision-makers make decisions. Because, in the end, our goal is to make sure a decision-maker makes the right decision as soon as possible and spends the least amount of money to have the highest quality operational infrastructure,” Garrett said.

“We can tell the city to fix this pipe or fix that pipe, and they can trust us, or we can find a way of showing them visually in a way that they say, ‘Ah, that makes sense,’ ” Soibelman said. “Visualization has that power.”