PAÍS visualization lab brings big data to life: UNM newsroom


The University of New Mexico (UNM) has completed construction of its new Physics and Astronomy and Interdisciplinary Science (PAÍS) building, a $67 million project that is already changing the way research is conducted on the campus.

A 20-plus-year project, the PAÍS facility houses the Department of Physics and Astronomy as well as the new Interdisciplinary Science Co-op (IS Co-op). Every detail of the 137,000 square foot facility – from collaborative meeting spaces to labs with open floor plans – is dedicated to encouraging interdisciplinary education and research.

The PAÍS facility merges a wide range of academic disciplines with the aim of inspiring and developing new and existing collaborative partnerships. In addition to classrooms, labs and administrative spaces for physics and astronomy, seven core centers and labs are dedicated to the IS cooperative: the Center for the Advancement of Research and Education in Computing (ASPIRE), the Computation and Genomics Laboratory (CGaT), the Center for Comparative Human Primate and Physiology (CHmPP), the Center for Quantum Information & Control (CQuIC), the Center for Stable Isotopes (CSI), the Laboratory for Magneto-optic Spectroscopy and the Nanomaterials Characterization Facility (NCF).

“The common thread between IS Co-op labs is that they produce or analyze very large amounts of data,” said Christopher Lippitt, faculty coordinator for IS Co-op, director of ASPIRE and associate director and director of the graduate program for the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. “Big data analytics or converting data into knowledge was actually the organizing concept behind the IS cooperative. They all do large-scale computing or create large datasets that lend themselves to computational analysis.

To analyze big data, Lippitt said one of the few universal methods is visualization.

“It’s a technique that gives us a starting point to understand data patterns,” he said. “We can use visualization to triangulate how we develop algorithmic approaches to interpreting data. And it is also a means, both physical and intellectual, of bringing large numbers of people together around a common set of resources and abilities.

To this end, the Visualization Lab was constructed in the PAÍS building to provide a new state-of-the-art resource for large-scale visualizations. When establishing the lab, the underlying goal was to allow researchers to reach unprecedented levels of detail corresponding to the increasing volumes of data they are working with (think DNA sequencing, molecular structures and atomic or social media activity). To achieve the level of visual detail envisioned by the researchers, a unique solution was needed to enable them to display an incredible number of pixels simultaneously. In fact, when the visualization lab was designed, what they envisioned was so unique it didn’t even exist yet.


At the cutting edge of possibility
UNM research has focused on the ability to render extremely large and complex datasets so that they are visible to the human eye.

This effort was led by Tim Johnson, associate director of learning environments, and Sean Smock, chief information officer at the Robert O. Anderson School of Management.

The limiting factor they faced was pixel density. “Until very recently, video displays were limited to 1080p per screen,” Smock said.

“We see it as a world-class visualization resource and a new capability that will be very important for research and discovery in the future.” – Professor Christopher Lippett

At this resolution, visually representing what the researchers had in mind would require a video wall of colossal proportions, which was neither economically nor practically viable. The other issue was bezel size – they needed video wall technology with the smallest of bezels.

“The challenge was that no one had a monitor that could meet our specs,” Johnson said. “Speaking with the wall processor manufacturers, none of them had anything that could support this either.”

LED wasn’t an option because LED manufacturers don’t make displays with small enough pixel sizes. “The smallest LED pixel is about 0.7 millimeters, which doesn’t give us enough pixel density,” Smock said. “We needed smaller sizes.”

As they continued to move forward, the UNM team became interested in the potential for using a networked AV solution with 4K video wall technology. But that presented a secondary challenge: how to move 18 4K video streams from a huge server on the third floor to the visualization lab on the first floor.

To solve this problem, the UNM team turned to AV integrator AVI-SPL, who provided a Creston networked AV solution and began working with the UNM IT team to design a video transport network.

Yet they did not yet have proper display technology.

“When UNM approached us, they wanted a video wall with 70-inch 4K panels and the narrowest bezel, but no one has actually made a display that meets those criteria,” said Adam Babb, videographer. audiovisual and acoustics at AVI-SPL. But then, in June 2019, Planar announced an expansion of its Clarity® Matrix® G3 LCD video wall family with the introduction of a near-seamless 65-inch display in native 4K resolution. It gave the team what they were looking for.

World-class viewing
In the visualization lab, AVI-SPL installed a Clarity Matrix G3 (MX65U) video wall nearly 24 feet long and 7 feet high in a 6×3 configuration. In addition to the clarity matrix, the solution includes a Crestron DM NVX network AV backbone for video transport.

The full pixel map of the Clarity Matrix G3 video wall measures 24K wide by 6K high (23,040 pixels by 6,480 pixels). “The server was configured to take advantage of this density,” Babb said. “With the power of the server generating 18 streams of 4K data and sending them to the video wall on an individual basis, pixel by pixel, one image can map the entire video wall.”

This creates one of the largest screens in the world in terms of pixel size. “I’ve never had access to a screen that can display so many pixels simultaneously, and neither has anyone else I know,” Lippitt said. “We see it as a world-class visualization resource and a new capability that will be very important for research and discovery in the future. As we seek to use artificial intelligence and computing to understand or optimize aspects of our world, visualization will play a vital role in our ability to leverage the vast untapped knowledge contained in the zettabytes of data available.

With Clarity Matrix G3, the researchers’ impressions were nothing short of spectacular, according to Smock. “The display is crystal clear and it works great with Crestron NVX equipment,” he said. “We are able to easily switch between layout modes and reconfigure the spave as needed to display a single massive image or many smaller images.

Leveraging these technologies, Smock added, will allow UNM researchers to interpret and analyze data in ways that have never been done before. “One of the most interesting things about this new capability is that we don’t know what discoveries can be made, which is really why a facility like this exists.”

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