Skip to main content

Since its creation in 1989, the GVIS Lab has had a storied visual and technological history.

Early Beginnings

It all started in 1982 when a $20 million supercomputer was brought to NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

1982 Cray 1-S/2200 Supercomputer
The original Cray 1-S/2200 Supercomputer in the Research and Analysis Center. (1982)

The Cray 1-S/2200 liquid-cooled, vector architecture supercomputer opened the door to a new type of experimentation, one that could create computer models and simulations for the scientists to study and analyze their data. Beforehand, researchers of complex and difficult to visualize or dangerous subject matter could only postulate details of their work by solving equations. Although this earlier method was sound for some time, the implementation and experimentation with computer models allowed researchers to solve previously overlooked or unknown problems as well as understand their results with a higher degree of precision.

The Research and Analysis Center, the 10×10 wind tunnel building, and the Materials and Structures building all had a Cray 1-S supercomputer. At the time, not many scientists had a computer at their desk and therefore needed assistance using the resources the Cray 1-S provided. The solution was the Interactive Computer-Assisted Research and Engineering (ICARE) and the Lewis Information Network (LINK). These systems connected each supercomputer mainframe to specialized terminal rooms that the researchers and engineers could use collectively. These systems took NASA into the era of supercomputing and also brought increased attention to the value and power of scientific visualization.

Three screenshots of GRAPH3D computer generated graphics.
GRAPH3D was an innovative technology in the 1980s that supported shaded surfaces and had a rich set of user-friendly commands.

An early scientific visualization technology of ICARE was GRAPH3D. This was a mainframe-based program with a command line and Fortran interface developed by the Special Projects Branch and IBM sub-contractors. The program gave users shaded graphics (making use of all 256 available colors) and a simple yet powerful command structure. But technology was quickly evolving. The research computing environment was changing and more advanced tools for data visualization were emerging.

Creation of GVIS

Image of Early GVIS Lab
The secure supercomputing space that would eventually become the GVIS Lab. (1989)

In 1989 it was time for an upgrade. Glenn wanted the latest scientific visualization technology and techniques for its scientists, so the Research Analysis Center (RAC) was expanded. Additionally, the Cray 1-S/2200 was replaced with the new and improved Cray X-MP-2 and standalone graphics workstations were added to Glenn’s fleet of visualization tools. With the expansion of the RAC came the construction of a secure space for housing another Cray machine. It was the height of the Cold War and Glenn left no anti-sabotage precaution overlooked as they fortified the room with a filtered power feed, an internal central cooling system, raised floor, and anti-Electromagnetic Field mesh on all four sides. Today, this room is the GVIS Lab, however in 1989 our humble beginnings took place in a smaller secure computing room nearby.

Black and white picture of Jay Horowitz behind a computer.
Jay Horowitz saw GVIS Lab through its creation and early years at Glenn.

Jay Horowitz was largely responsible for the creation of the GVIS lab. Jay received his PhD in physics from The Ohio State University and was an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University before starting at NASA in 1985. Through his leadership, the lab was responsible for helping any and all Glenn scientists who needed help visualizing their data. The lab was also tasked with inventing new visualization techniques and promoting Glenn’s activities though tours, videos and other outreach programs.

In the early 90s, the era of Cray supercomputing at NASA had come to an end. Wishing to experiment more with computer visualization technology and methodology, NASA Glenn called upon the existing computer science and visualization developers to come together to see what they could do with smaller computers and the cutting-edge technology of the time. Thus, the Graphics and Visualization Lab (GVIS) was born. GVIS was tasked with providing tools and expertise in support of all of Glenn’s missions and core competencies. Additionally, GVIS was to provide center access to emerging visualization and display technologies, to promote Glenn programs to professional and public communities, and to take research and make it understandable to the general public.

GVIS On A Roll

90s Graphics and Visualization Lab
GVIS at the turn of the century.

A NASA Glenn Staple

Old GVIS Lab photo
Early GVIS.

The High Performance Computing Act of 1991 and the High Performance Computing and Communications Program of 1996 provided funding and opportunities to add high-speed computing, virtual reality, and collaborative visualization to its fleet of tools. Because of this, GVIS acquired cutting-edge graphics technology, including studio quality TV animation and recording equipment, an Abekas A60 Digital Video Hard Drive Console, reel to reel analog recorders, editing and color correction machines, stereographic displays, and other image processing systems. The animation of time-varying simulations became an important research tool and so much of the hardware and software of the Lab was dedicated to perfecting the technique.

In addition helping any and all Glenn scientists who needed help visualizing their data, the Lab was also developing state-of-the-art visualization techniques including: particle tracking, iso-surface contours, and volume visualization. Our team was also busy promoting Glenn’s activities though tours, videos and other outreach programs. Tour guests included school children, corporate VIPs, local and national politicians, TV news media, and researchers from other national labs as GVIS rose to the top of the Glenn’s tour request list.

Historic GVIS Lab
Turn-of-the-century GVIS Lab. (2004)

Utilizing state-of-the-art recording and editing hardware, the Lab regularly shared work both inside and outside of NASA. Our specialties included flow visualizations, structural analysis, discrete particle visualizations, and mission simulations – to name a few. Additionally, the Lab worked with Sony to develop Cleveland’s first pre-digital HDTV recording systems which had local TV stations signing up for tours. GVIS even had access to early virtual reality technology in 1997.

The Age of Virtual Reality

As GVIS Lab adapted to utilizing virtual reality, the lab started to create its own unique technologies. Early VR technologies of the lab included:

MAEL VR Flight Simulator: The Mobile Aeronautics Education Laboratory (MAEL) was a traveling trailer to teach weather, flight, navigation, and other air travel skills. It supported multi-screen panoramic views as well as head-tracked HMD’s.

Black and white diagram showing set of equipment for the MAEL VR Flight Simulator.
Set up showing location of the various equipment used in the MAEL VR Flight Simulator.
Man showing young boy how to use flight simulator.
MAEL trailer’s flight simulator supported multi-screen panoramic views or head-tracked HMDs.

WrightSim: The WrightSim was created to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ 1903 Kitty Hawk flight. This realistic flight simulator was developed in-house and supported 3D and VR. It ran on a variety of displays including a unique flyer cradle modeled after the Wright brothers’ plane. Notably, this was used during Glenn’s “100 Years of Flight Gala Celebration”. GVIS VIP’s who attended the event are John Glenn and Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz and Jim Lovell who tried out the WrightSim.

Apollo 13 flight director, Gene Kranz, watches Jim Lovell pilot WrightSim.
Apollo 13 flight director, Gene Kranz, watches Jim Lovell pilot WrightSim.
John Glenn and another stand talking.
John Glenn talks to a GVIS Lab programmer during the 2003 “100 Years of Flight Gala Celebration” event at Glenn.

Immersadesk: Immersadesk was a portable projection VR system. This was the lab’s first CAVE compatible system and the precursor to the GRUVE Lab.

A women with wires and equipment attached to her body walks on treadmill in front of a TV.
The concept of the VR treadmill was used to test if duplicating a visual-motor linkage was feasible for long duration spaceflight.

VR Treadmill: In collaboration between the Cleveland Clinic and the John Glenn Biomedical Engineering Consortium, the lab developed a VR treadmill. This was developed for possible use as a counter measure to disorientation for astronauts when returning from space.

To aid with the lab’s goal of education and outreach, “doodads” such as the cardboard viewboxes and Chromadepth glasses were also created. These were created for Glenn programs and events to give guests the opportunity take home a souvenir and have simple 3D experiences.

Turn-of-the-century GVIS models:

Adventures of the ACCL

Before the GVIS Lab worked in the room that we do today, our secure computing space was home to the Advanced Computational Concepts Lab (ACCL), which was also funded by the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 and the High Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1996.

ACE Cluster
ACE Cluster Computer (2005).

The ACCL specialized in computer experimentation – in fact, they pioneered cluster-computing at NASA which is the practice of connecting several smaller computers together to make one big supercomputer. They were able to achieve this by using an experimental computer switch made by IBM. The ACCL developed the Lewis Advanced Cluster Environment (LACE) in 1993, which at the time was the fastest supercomputer in the world. Following the LACE was the Fury Cluster in 1999, the Areoshark Cluster in 2001, and the Advanced Communications Environment Cluster (ACE) in 2005.

Creation of the GRUVE Lab

High Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1996funded the creation of advanced collaborative environments across several NASA centers including NASA Glenn which built the Glenn Reconfigurable User-interface and Virtual-reality Exploration (GRUVE) Lab. Within the GRUVE Lab, the Cave Automatic Virtual Reality Environment (CAVE) was built which allowed visitors, researchers, and collaborators to come into GVIS and immerse themselves in a room-size VR simulation.

In the spring of 2019, the GVIS Lab acquired a brand-new CAVE with laser projectors, a VR floor, and wireless tracking devices among other major improvements. Today, we still bring in visitors to experience virtual-reality like they never have before.

GVIS Today

Today, GVIS Lab has the same mission the Lab had in 1989: to provide tools and expertise in support of all of Glenn’s missions and core competencies, to provide center access to emerging visualization and display technologies, to promote Glenn programs to professional and public communities, and to take research and make it understandable to the general public. The Lab still takes pride in pushing the limits of scientific visualization and computer science, helping fellow researchers make sense of their data, and inspiring the next generation through our demonstrations and presentations. We currently focus on experimenting with the continually emerging technologies of virtual reality, augmented reality, machine learning, computer science, user interface applications, and many other cutting-edge tools. Our team is a diverse and interdisciplinary powerhouse that values collaboration, cross-disciplinary learning, and a belief in sharing our research and knowledge with others.

Thumbs Up! Calvin Robinson
GVIS Rocks!

Along with a strong connection to the NASA internship program at Glenn, our outreach and mentorship initiative has a robust youth and student-focus – but that doesn’t mean we don’t also cater to the professional world. Each year GVIS visits schools, science museums, expos, airshows, conventions, and fairs to show off our latest and greatest creations, interact with people of all ages, to get the public excited about NASA, and to demonstrate the power of scientific visualization and scientific computing.

Computational technology has come a long way since the days of ICARE, but that has not stopped GVIS Lab from inspiring the next generation of scientists, researchers, and artists. In fact, we just has our 30th anniversary in the fall of 2019! We welcome you to come visit us in Cleveland, Ohio or wherever we’re demonstrating. We also have regular openings in the fall, spring, and summer for internship positions with the NASA Internship Program. Thanks for reading!

Special thanks to Jay Horowitz.

Contact Us!

Need to reach us? You can directly send an email to the GVIS Team or the Team Leader, Herb Schilling

Like our content? Follow us on social media @nasa_gvis on Twitter and Instagram!

Instagram logo          Twitter Logo           Youtube Logo

Provide feedback