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When even industry insiders think of virtual reality systems, and of the data visualisation sector in particular, it's the larger, multi-user data worlds with relatively exotic hardware that tend to leap straight into mind, as opposed to the single user software suites that process and display data in 2D or 3D form.

Yet, the latter is still a form of virtual reality, crafting worlds from numbers and formulae alone. Their larger brethren owe much to them, as the algorithms that drive hair movement, advanced buffer techniques, compression, dynamic lighting and more, all came from the research environments dedicated to number crunching and displaying.

It is no accident that our understanding and use of such intensively mathematical structures, in VR and in unrelated outside fields, has lept forwards like never before, since mathematical model crunchers that work far, far faster than the human brain, became popular.

One such number cruncher, is Mathematica.

Mathematica is one of the older research visualisation tools, with versions stretching back for 20 years. Its an integrated suite, attempting to be as close to a regular VR environment as is possible for a mathematical research tool, by integrating all aspects of work into the same program. First released in 1988, it has had a profound effect on the way computers are used in technical and other fields.

When Mathematica 1.0 was released, The New York Times heralded it as "the importance of the program cannot be overlooked," and Business Week later ranked Mathematica among the 10 most important new products of the year. So it is surprising that it is in general overlooked outside of the technical fields it was meant for. In design, it exists to accelerate the processing of mathematical models, pushing far beyond the capabilities of both the human brain, and of paper and pen, in terms of the complexity it is able to handle. Yet at the same time, provide accountability through each stage.

Increasingly with the program, there is no need to export the data anywhere else: a full range of modelling, simulation, visualisation, development, documentation, and deployment is possible without leaving the virtual environment of Mathematica.

At first, Mathematica's impact was felt mainly in the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics. But over the years, Mathematica has become important in virtually every research field. Mathematica is used today throughout the sciences--physical, biological, social, and other--and counts many of the world's foremost scientists among its enthusiastic supporters. It has played a crucial role in many important discoveries and has been the basis for thousands of technical papers. In engineering, Mathematica has become a standard for both development and production, and by now many of the world's important new products rely at one stage or another on Mathematica in their design. In commerce, Mathematica has played a significant role in the growth of sophisticated financial modelling, and is being widely used in many kinds of general planning and analysis. Mathematica has also emerged as an important tool in computer science and software development: its language component is widely used as a research, prototyping, and interface environment.

Several paradigms pioneered in Mathematica have emerged as major directions in software thinking, and each successive version of Mathematica has invariably redefined the state of the art in a number of areas of other work, and changed the flow of the IT field once or twice.

So ignore it at your peril.

Research speed

Research speed is steadily increasing, especially in general number crunching, largely because the time to do it, is falling. Many incorrectly assume that this is just down to processor speed. Moore's law is a factor, but it is not the only factor. Programs such as this one, integrating ever expanding databases of scientific knowledge, ever more sophisticated programming languages and visualisation manipulation capabilities, play just as great if not greater roles in the advancement of knowledge. Of course, a fringe effect is that the more powerful a heavily in demand research environment becomes, the more researchers clamour for more powerful hardware to run it on. The cycle thus becomes self perpetuating, and the rate of research across all fields, redoubles continually.

In 2008, a new version came out, that blew the above paradigm out of the water, and gave Mathematica the attention it has so long deserved, from the general VR fields. Wolfram Research, the makers of Mathematica, unveiled a new version that integrated CUDA, NVIDIA's parallel GPU computing architecture.

The result? Somewhere around a 10,000% boost in speed for all functions of the software suite, as it trades off of the CPU and GPU systems inside a computer, far more efficiently than any other visualisation software so far. Larger VR systems can learn a lot from studying this approach as it manifests in a literal 10 to 100 fold increase in computation speed, on current hardware. This even applies to desktop workstations.

"Since its initial release, Mathematica has been adopted by over 3 million professionals across the entire global technical computing community, and it has had a profound effect on how computers are used across many fields," said Joy Costa, director of global partnerships at Wolfram Research. "The prospect of a hundred fold increase in Mathematica 7 performance is staggering. CUDA enabled Mathematica will revolutionise the world of numerical computation."

"With Mathematica 7, researchers and scientists can easily tap the enormous parallel processing power of NVIDIA GPU's through a familiar high level interface," said Andy Keane, general manager of the GPU Computing business at NVIDIA. This is truly transformative, giving Mathematica users computational horsepower like never before and reducing computation time in some cases from days to a matter of minutes."

The expectation is that within the next few years, 2008 onwards, we will start to see an explosion in algorithm generation and research throughput, analogous to how the past 20 years have looked compared to those before.

Without frequently unconsidered VR systems such as Mathematica and its kin, that work tirelessly on visualising, simulating and modelling purely mathematical data, all of the larger, heavily interactive worlds we enjoy today, simply would not exist.

Pause for thought, isn't it?

References & Further Reading

Wolfram Mathematica 7

Wolfram Mathematica: Documentation Center

Wikipedia: Mathematica


Mathematica Users Get 100x Performance Boost From NVIDIA CUDA

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