Headlines

As reported by The Hartford Courant, March 3, 2011.

UConn's Large Computer Screen Reveals Scientific Secrets

50-Million Pixel, 12-Panel Device Highlights Subtle Details that Couldn't Be Seen Before

By William Weir

The 12-panel, 50 million-pixel computer monitor at the UConn Health Center displayed multicolored images of two mice brains. They looked similar, but the screen 4.5 feet by 9.1 feet revealed a few subtle differences that otherwise might have gone undetected.

One of the images was of a mouse with a mutated gene the same mutation that causes autism in humans. Both images of the brains featured a thin blue layer, but in the brain with the mutation the layer was a little thinner.

"We can get an idea of the cellular changes happening here," said Ann Cowan, deputy director of UConn's Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling. Pointing to the layer, now blown up several times, she said it's one example of how the multi-tile display wall helps researchers analyze data in ways that they couldn't before.

The health center, in Farmington, got the screen, which has been running since October, with a $35,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Much of the technology for the screen was developed by researchers at the University of California, San Diego. UConn computer programmer Ed Boyce, who assembled the screen and operates it for researchers, said there are about a dozen of these screens at universities in the U.S.

UConn's isn't the largest, but Boyce believes that it is the largest portable one. The door to the room where it's stored had to be specially made so that the monitor could be wheeled out for presentations.

The size is impressive, but Boyce stresses that it's not just a JumboTron for scientists. Because it has 50 million pixels, he said, you don't have to compromise between magnitude and resolution. A good 30-inch monitor, for instance, might have 4 million pixels.

The display wall was originally intended for UConn's Virtual Cell program, a project that allows researchers anywhere in the world to create cell simulations. But the university's researchers continue to find new applications for it.

Cowan said that as powerful as computers are, the human brain is still better at pattern recognition. The multi-tile screen takes advantage of that by putting all the data where it can be seen at one time.

"The human mind can look at it, and think, 'There's something funny going on here,' " she said.

As an example, Boyce called up data that appeared as a series of vertical lines. It was a spectrogram a sound analysis of the squeaks of autistic mice. UConn's John Carson, professor of molecular, microbial and structural biology, recorded the squeaks the screen displayed one minute's worth to see if the patterns differed from mice without autism. As it turns out, autistic mice squeak more repetitively.

"This is something that could never be done any other way they would either be so crunched up that you couldn't see it, or you could only see a small fraction of a second at a time," Boyce said. "This is an example of data that could not be seen on any other monitor."