The University of Utah is among five schools chosen to lead national research to elevate computer graphics from mere sketches that don't always obey physical laws into high-tech animation that looks and acts just like the real thing.

For example, scientists envision creating true-to-life, three-dimensional computer animation of a car engine that would allow them to visually tour it in action, make changes and see immediately how various parts respond. It would help create cars of the future.And they dream of detailed, computer-generated animation of a cancer patient's body that could quickly simulate the effects of radiation treatment. Or using ultrasound examination of a pregnant woman to form 3-D computer graphics of the fetus and its condition.

Such will be the work of the new National Center for Computer Graphics and Scientific Visualization, which will be based in part at the U. and at Brown University, Cornell University, the California Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Projects Agency announced Thursday a five-year, $14.68 million grant to aid the project.

States and schools have pledged additional money. The NSF said, for example, Gov. Norm Bangerter has pledged $100,000 a year of state funds for five years. Computer manufacturers are also expected to make large donations of equipment.

The new center will he headed by Cornell computer science professor Donald P. Greenberg, who is also an adjunct professor at the U. Richard F. Riesenfeld, who is also a professor at the U., will be co-director of the center.

Basic research will include advanced computer modelling, better display techniques, 3-D user interfaces, high-speed parallel graphics computers and better interactive controls for animation and simulation.

National Science Foundation Director Walter Massey added that today's supercomputers can perform trillions of computations a second and provide so much data that it is hard to use and evaluate. But translating it into graphics helps make the information usable.

He said the five schools "will forge together the cutting edge of human and computer interaction."

Because the research is so broad, organizers felt the center should have five participating universities collaborating over high-speed computer networks and through exchanges of scientists and students.

To help transfer the center's knowledge to industry, center leaders plan exchange visits between the universities and industrial laboratories.

An external advisory board to the new center will also include representatives of Digital Equipment Corp., Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Silicon Graphics and other leading scientists from industry and national research laboratories.

"It is a very exciting day," said Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, who participated in the announcement. "I think the center will contribute a great deal."


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Center projects

Officials said the new five-school National Center for Computer Graphics and Scientific Visualization will immediately set out to tackle several difficult projects including:

- To aid radiation cancer therapy, the center will develop computer graphics that superimpose 3-D images of the body's anatomy, project planned radiation beams and figure the resulting radiation dose.

- To improve design of parts for airplanes, cars and microchips, the center will develop techniques to simulate and display the complex ways fractures develop in different materials.

- To allow physicians better understanding of how nerves work, the center will create methods for visualizing the simultaneous movement of skin, muscle and bone.