“Avatar” Arrives at MTSU!

And while it could happen some day, we’re not talking about the movie being shown in the new Student Union video theater when it opens in late August.

Technology similar to what people see in the “Avatar” movie series has reached the MTSU classroom — and “it brings science to life,” said Dr. Anatoliy Volkov, who has helped bring it to campus.

Student researchers are touting new advanced 3D visualization and GPU-based high-performance computing — that even impacts medical images such as CT and MRI scans — that’s setting MTSU apart from other universities.

Undergraduate and graduate students and others are excited about the new MT 3D VizLab, short for the Stereoscopic 3D Visualization Laboratory, which is found in Kirksey Old Main. The historic building, with its signature eight columns, is home to the computer science, mathematical science and geoscience departments.

During a recent unveiling of the facility and with the help of students, university administrators learned firsthand how technology originally designed for computer gaming could be used to perform high-level research in various scientific disciplines.  

“I am excited to see such technology become available to MTSU students,” biochemistry undergraduate student Julian Harbehband said. “With the creation of the 3D VizLab and supercomputing center, MTSU has established itself at the forefront as a research-oriented university.”

The laboratory is equipped with the latest 3D technology available from NVIDIA, and includes a stereoscopic 3D projector and a 16-display 3D hyperwall, said Volkov, associate professor in chemistry and one of the guiding forces behind the research room. A hyperwall is an array of liquid crystal display monitors, Volkov said, adding that 20 pair of 3D shutter glasses is part of the equipment used by students in their research.

NVIDIA is the company that invented the GPU, or graphics-processing unit, in 1999.

VizLab applications can be applicable in the areas of engineering, health care, chemistry, economics, physics, biology, geoscience and more.

Particularly since MTSU added Ph.D. programs in computational sciences and molecular biosciences in recent years, faculty and administrators expressed the need for high-performance computing and the advanced 3D visualization facility because of the need to be competitive in research-intensive scientific disciplines.

With hyperwall technology, Volkov said that “in the so-called power mode, we can visualize a single image across all 16 monitors (with each monitor displaying a piece of the image) while in the hyperwall mode each monitor has a programmable relationship to the others. A stereoscopic 3D can be enabled in any of the modes.”

Volkov said much credit should be given to Dr. Preston MacDougall, an MTSU chemistry professor.

MacDougall was introduced to hyperwall technology in 1999 while working as part of a summer research fellowship at NASA Ames Research Center and inspired his colleagues to get one at MTSU, Volkov said.

The presentations included demonstrations by MTSU faculty and students, as well as one from Dr. Christian Weitholt, a representative of Visage Image Inc., a global provider of enterprise imaging and advanced visualization solutions for diagnostic imaging and clinical research.

Weitholt discussed a collaboration between MTSU and Visage Imaging that included establishing the university as a beta site for their flagship 3D visualization tool called Amira.

Students used the opportunity to showcase their research to MTSU administrators and their peers. They included:

• Chris Irwin, a recent chemistry graduate who assisted Volkov in assembling and setting up the hyperwall and will be applying to one of MTSU’s new Ph.D. programs, shared his finding in drug-related computational research;

• Olukemi “Kemi” Jolayemi, a biotechnology graduate student who is interested in using computational techniques to study the mechanism of the action of antibiotics, shared a similar topic;

• J.J. Lay, a computational science Ph.D. student, demonstrated how the new facility will be used for high-performance GPU computing; and

• Harbehband, who wants to apply to a medical school after graduation, showed how the lab can be used for advanced 3D visualization of medical images, such as CT and MRI scans, and how this interweaves with numerous academic disciplines.

“The amazing part to this new area is its dynamic ability to appeal to the many different departments at MTSU: architecture, anthropology, aerospace, forensics, physics, biology and chemistry,” Harbehband said. “I could go on and on, the only limiting factor is our imaginations.

“With close collaboration with these departments, we not only can provide theoretical evidence to back research but visualize the information by a new interactive method that allows a much clearer understanding by students and researchers alike.”

Recent Fulbright Scholar recipient Daniel Gouger and recent Goldwater Scholar Jordan Dodson also attended the presentation.

“Both work with state-of-the-art computational modeling tools in their chemistry research,” said MacDougall, who serves as a mentor to both awardees.

The students utilizing the technology for their research will be wearing $300 3D glasses.

“You can have 3D technology without glasses, but you definitely need shutter glasses to see in 3D,” Volkov said. “With both your eyes, shutter glasses give you a stereoscopic view.”

As for how the technology can be used with medical images, Volkov said alumnus, MTSU Foundation board member and Murfreesboro board-certified implant dentist Dr. Walter Chitwood Jr. “saw the advantages and was very impressed and excited to see it. He performs sophisticated surgeries. He felt 3D gives a better perspective than 2D.”

The 3D VizLab has been funded primarily by the external earmark grant from the Department of Energy awarded to chemistry faculty MacDougall, Volkov and Dr. Tibor Koritsanszky in 2010, with contributions from the Ph.D. program in computational sciences and its director, Dr. John Wallin.

Start-up funds led to the obtaining of an 80-core computer cluster and computational chemistry software. An MTSU Foundation special projects seed award Volkov received in 2009 provided the advanced 3D visualization and 3D software.

In addition to the Ph.D. program in computational sciences and MTSU Foundation, other acknowledged partners include the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Office of Science, the MTSU Office of Research (Dr. Mike Allen, vice provost for research and dean of the College of Graduate Studies) and the Office of the University Provost (Dr. Brad Bartel).