The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is diving head-first into the virtual realm, with the installation of a number of advanced visualisation systems at its Daresbury and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory facilities.

A £2.2 million contract has been awarded to virtual reality specialist Virtalis to provide interactive 3D visualisation systems across the two sites. According to Dr Richard Blake, director of the Computational Science and Engineering Department at STFC, the new systems will allow extremely complex data to be viewed and analysed visually.

Virtalis's ActiveWall product consists of a custom screen, specialist computer, custom software and powerful projectors. It uses a tracking system to monitor the user's movements, enabling the perspective of the visuals to be altered according to their position and orientation.

Users can navigate through the virtual world using a handheld controller. They can also pick and manipulate component parts in real-time and make decisions on the fly, according to Virtalis.

Under the terms of the contract, Virtalis will provide a quad channel, a blended ActiveWall, two dual channel ActiveWalls, and a mammoth, eight-channel ActiveWall featuring a 10.25m curved screen with both blending and warping.

“We will use our ActiveWalls for a range of science and engineering applications, including computational fluid dynamics, materials visualisation, plasma, environmental simulations and molecular modelling,” explained Blake.

“Virtual Reality can make complex information easily intelligible, so we also expect to use our new facilities to present information to researchers, the general public and policy makers.”

Blake said that Virtalis was chosen for the project due to its breadth and depth of experience of large installations.

The contract forms part of a £37.5 million investment in STFC’s e-infrastructure facilities that are designed to establish Daresbury Laboratory as an International Centre of Excellence for Computational Science and Engineering.

As well as 3D visualisation, STFC is also investing in one of the the most powerful supercomputers in Europe, other high performance computing developments, network improvements, machine room improvements and a substantial training and education capability.

“We’ll be helping small and large businesses to harness the business benefits of high performance computing (HPC); guiding them as they test and develop their applications,” said Blake.

Earlier this year the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), based in Ansty Park near Coventry, put out a tender for an “immersive, virtual reality suite” to help save on the cost of research and development.

Dave Doughty, procurement co-ordinator for MTC, told Techworld that experimenting with virtual reality is far less expensive than experimenting with actual, real pieces of kit in the R&D field. The company will use the technology to model and design products before putting them into production.