Illinois-Cyprus collaboration spans computing, cultural heritage, and more

04.26.12 -

by Trish Barker

For several years, the University of Illinois and the Cyprus Institute have been partners in an effort to establish a supercomputing center, and other expanded digital research capabilities, in the Eastern Mediterranean. Many of the diverse research activities encompassed by this collaboration are now bearing fruit for both partners.

High-performance computing

High-performance computing is a new endeavor for the Eastern Mediterranean region, so the Cyprus Institute consulted the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to guidance in establishing its Computation-based Science and Technology Research Centre (CaSToRC).

NCSA's John Towns, leader of the National Science Foundation's XSEDE project and other cyberinfrastructure efforts, analyzed the needs of researchers in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean region, evaluated various proposed computing technology options, and determined the optimal infrastructure design for the new center's first supercomputer, Cy-Tera, which has a peak performance of 33.4 teraflops (33.4 trillion calculations per second).

Cy-Tera supercomputer combines both CPUs and GPUs (graphics-processing units). There are 98 CPU nodes with 12 CPU cores and 48 GB memory per node and 18 GPU compute nodes with 12 CPU cores, 48, GB memory, and 2 NVIDIA Tesla M2070 GPUs per node. It will be used by researchers in climate science, engineering, physics, and other fields throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region and will serve the needs of the Cyprus Institute and other project partners, including the University of Cyprus and Jordan's Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME).

NCSA also plans to assist with management of the Cy-Tera system—including security, networking, storage, user support and training.

Capturing cultural heritage

NCSA and the Cyprus Institute also participate in the European Union infrastructure project LinkSCEEM, which includes efforts to study and share cultural heritage. Wayne Pitard, director of the University of Illinois' Spurlock Museum, leads a project to improve the imaging of artifacts by bringing new technology to the Eastern Mediterranean.

"In terms of cultural heritage, Cyprus is a natural conduit to move information from the Middle East into Europe and into the United States," Pitard says, noting that Egypt, Jordan, and Israel are also among the LinkSCEEM partners.

Since 2008, Spurlock has been using advanced imaging technology to reveal amazing details of some of the museum's more than 45,000 artifacts. Collaborators from the University of Southern California built, helped install, and trained their Cyprus colleagues in the use of a 360-degree camera, a polynomial texture-mapping dome and a domeless polynomial texture-mapping system. Detailed images captured by this new equipment will be shared with Inscriptifact, a digital library, which will allow the high-resolution images to be easily shared with scholars from around the world.

"There are millions of artifacts in the Eastern Mediterranean for which this is the best way to document them," Pitard says. "You can look at these [images] from anywhere in the world, and that's just an amazing thing."

The Image, Spatial, Data Analysis (ISDA) group and Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL) at NCSA are also working on tools to facilitate collaboration.

ISDA is adapting the Tele-immersive Environment for Everybody (TEEVE) to use the low-cost Kinect 3D depth cameras. Similar to Skype videoconferencing, TEEVE captures and transmits 3D reconstructions rather than conventional 2D video. Because the data is three-dimensional, users at remote locations can zoom in and rotate the transmitted scenes. With lower cost 3D cameras and small-profile modern computers, the group hopes to put these feeds into the field. Using this system, researchers at remote sites could work together to "reassemble" artifacts that have been broken. These 3D puzzle pieces could be viewed and manipulated in a shared 3D space, even though they are physically scattered to multiple locations.

The AVL team is adapting their Virtual Director software—which they developed and have used to create data-driven scientific visualizations for IMAX theaters, planetarium shows, and TV documentaries—to enable archeologists, historians and other researchers to interactively collaborate in real time, sharing a sense of the three-dimensional physical space of archeological and historical sites.

"The scale of the immersive displays we've built and the resolution of our 4K 3D display system will allow collaborators to virtually inhabit a space together, sharing an experience that hasn't been possible for thousands of years," says AVL director Donna Cox.

"There are some archeological spaces that you are not able to visit physically. So for me, doing this virtually is great—not only for me but also for dissemination to the people," says Ropertos Georgiou from the Cyprus Institute's Science and Technology in Archaeology Research Center (STARC).

Using a model provided by Georgiou, the team has created a detailed interactive 3D rendering of the Hellenistic-Roman theatre in the Cypriot city of Paphos. The theatre was constructed around 300 B.C by the Ptolemies of Alexandria and survived until the late 4th century AD, when an earthquake destroyed most of the structure. While the physical structure no longer remains intact, the Cyprus and Illinois collaborators can interact in the shared virtual space via personal avatars, changing perspective, moving objects, zooming in on specific features, and discussing what they see. Georgiou foresees these capabilities being very useful for researchers.

"We can actually have a collaboration in a historical place and have a dialogue. I believe that will be very helpful for us," he says. Already he is able to choreograph customized scenes, charting camera paths that focus on the theater's stage, or orchestra, or auditorium, depending on his visitors' interests.

The AVL team is gathering using Georgiou's feedback on the interface and his "wishlist" of capabilities to guide their development.

"For us this project is an opportunity to implement a number of improvements to Virtual Director that we've been interested in for some time," says AVL programmer Alex Betts. "The science here is different from what we work with most of the time, so that's prompted us to improve our software so it can deal with new data formats efficiently and easily going forward."

International education

The Cyprus Institute is also providing financial support for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who can contribute to the Illinois-Cyprus collaboration in areas such as climate and environmental modeling, fluid dynamics, plasma physics, digital cultural heritage, 3D visualization, and other areas of interest. Supported graduate assistants and post-docs will collaborate with Illinois faculty and staff at both the Cyprus Institute and NCSA, and will spend some time in residence at the Cyprus Institute.

Mechanical science and engineering student Marios Georgiou is the first to be supported under this new effort. With Illinois professor John Georgiadis, Georgiou is working on solar energy concentration and storage. He began by evaluating a heliostat (a mirrored device used to reflect sunlight onto a target) using ray-tracing techniques. Ray tracing involves selecting rays coming from one surface and computing which arrive at a second surface. The next step will be investigating how to store the concentrated harvested heat so it can be used at night and when the sun is blocked by clouds.