ERCIM News No.31 - October 1997

Virtual Reality at CLRC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

David Boyd

Virtual Reality (VR) is a powerful technology for solving today's real world problems. The Advanced Interactive Systems Group in the Department for Computation and Information is helping scientists and engineers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) to exploit VR for visualising scientific data and for modelling and animating complex engineering systems. We are also researching ways of improving the usability of future VR systems. This article describes some of the VR projects recently completed or currently underway at RAL.

The current generation of user interfaces in VR systems is somewhat rudimentary and non-intuitive. RAL has recently been awarded funding for a 3 year research project by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in which it will work in partnership with teams from York University and ColtVR Ltd to develop new user interaction techniques and tools for developing next generation 3D virtual environments. This problem is of course broader than VR and it is expected that the results will be of potential interest across a wide range of emerging 3D applications.

Virtual Reality for Visualising CFD Results

The real time interactivity provided by VR systems potentially offers more powerful and intuitive ways of examining complex datasets. Over the next year we will be working on another EPSRC-funded project to create an intelligent virtual environment in which the user can visualise and interact in real time with the results of large CFD calculations running in parallel on a multi-processor system and selectively focus on and examine those aspects of the solution which are of most interest.


In an EC-funded project, VIVRE, within the ESPRIT HPCN programme, we will be working with end-users in a variety of industries throughout Europe to demonstrate ways in which VR can enhance the visualization of scientific, engineering and commercial data.

Atlas End Cap Toroid

One of the earliest VR application projects at RAL was a VR simulation of the assembly of the Atlas End Cap Toroid (AECT), part of the Atlas experiment being built by RAL for the Large Hadron Collider project at CERN, Europe's Nuclear Research Centre near Geneva. AECT is a large (10m diameter) toroidal superconducting magnet system whose complex assembly process had to be verified and them communicated to engineers working on the project in other laboratories across Europe. VR proved to be an ideal way of doing this and of enabling the project engineers to examine their data immersively. The data to construct the VR model was transferred directly from RAL's Computervision CAD system. The AECT VR model has also been converted to VRML and was shown in this form at the WWW Consortium meeting at RAL in January 1997. The simulation was also written to video tape for off-line use by the ATLAS project team.


MAPS is a new neutron scattering experiment being built for the ISIS Spallation Neutron Source at RAL. Its shape is sufficiently complex that it was difficult to confirm the correctness of its design using only a CAD system. The design was transferred from CAD into the VR system and an animated model created showing how the incoming neutron beam was scattered by the material sample and recorded by banks of neutron detectors. Using this VR model, the engineers could view the MAPS system from many angles, including from inside the vacuum vessel, and check whether the geometrical arrangement of the design was correct. An animated walkthrough of the MAPS VR model was produced on video tape for the projects scientists to show the new equipment to its potential user community.

The figure shows a view of the MAPS detector with the neutron beamline emerging from the ISIS Target Station on the right. The neutron detector arrays are on the curved end face of the large vacuum vessel.

EISCAT Radar Model

The group is currently building a VR model of the EISCAT radar facility which is located in northern Europe. This is used to bounce radar signals off the ionosphere to study its properties. The facility consists of a 32m fully steerable UHF antenna and a 40m by 120m partially steerable VHF antenna, together with a control room and power generation building. The object of constructing the VR model is two-fold: to provide a realistic spatial simulation of the facility for public relations purposes; and to construct a training simulator based in the virtual control room where staff can learn how to control the antennae and carry out experiments before they travel to the site.

Spatial Modelling

We have also used VR to build models of the internal and external layout of buildings on the RAL site. The group is soon to move to a new location in RAL and we are constructing a 3D model of this to assist us with location of equipment and to show the design to others. We would like to construct a complete virtual model of the RAL site for the public Open Days to be held in summer 1998.

Virtual Reality Centre

The RAL VR Centre contains an 8-processor Silicon Graphics Onyx system with 3 Reality Engines, together with several other single processor SG machines, all with access to a range of 3D input devices and stereo output options including projection and HMD. The main VR run time system in use is Division's dVS/dVISE and we use a variety of modelling tools. The VR Centre is closely coupled to other visualization and digital media facilities run by the group enabling video output onto tape or in MPEG-encoded form onto CD-ROM or the WWW.


The group currently collaborates with several groups across Europe and would like to develop links with ERCIM partners also working in the field.

Please contact:
David Boyd - CLRC
Tel: +44 1235 446167

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