Technology Corridor

Virtual reality comes of age in the power industry.
Fortnightly Magazine - July 1 2003

Virtual reality comes of age in the power industry.

Technological breakthroughs in power generation, pollution control, waste management, renewable resource applications, and many similar areas are at the forefront of advances in developing, managing, and delivering public utility products. However, technology that is more often associated with computer games and Hollywood blockbusters is taking hold in the industry, and its impact may well be as great as any of the more well known technologies.

Virtual reality, or as many people prefer to call it, visual simulation (VizSim), is the use of computers to create interactive simulations that run in real time and are represented by reactive, 3-D graphics. Doom and John Madden Football are two popular games that make use of VizSim to create a virtual 3-D world in which players do their best to wreak havoc. The same technology that makes those games so engrossing is being applied to management and operations in public utilities, exploration of energy sources, and security training in many industries .

VizSim in the Public Utilities Business

Public utilities management tends to stay away from flashy, unproven technology, and though there were many demonstrations of potential utility applications of VizSim in the mid to late '90s, very few actually got a foothold in the industry. However, as the technology matured, and as developers realized that flashiness is trumped by return on investment, practical applications gained acceptance.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Consolidated Edison (ConEd) has been developing and testing the Power Network Visualization System (PNVS, or PowerViz) in cooperation with software developer AVS. PNVS addresses a common problem: Large amounts of real-time data regarding the health of the distribution network, presented by a variety of programs and systems, are difficult to correlate and act upon quickly and surely.

Currently undergoing pre-rollout testing in New York City, PNVS gathers data from a multitude of sources. This data describes the flow of power through ConEd's distribution system in New York City and provides real-time status information in a graphic display that enable operators to see much more than before. This makes it possible for them to react to problems much faster than they could previously.

A major goal of the PNVS system was to preserve ConEd's significant investments in applications development, including load-flow simulation. ConEd wanted to integrate its best applications into a single user interface. The solution was to use AVS's OpenViz product to integrate content, create better workflow, and innovate the user experience. The new system integrates multiple data sources into a single presentation, without getting rid of the underlying application.

A ConEd network manager using the PNVS system sees a map of Manhattan, which displays real-time data.

If needed, he can switch into projection mode, where possible future outcomes are shown. Steve Sukman, CEO of AVS explained, "PowerViz for ConEd is really a portal. The user can click on part of the map and drill down to a level of greater detail, or he can launch a legacy app that manages the data related to his specific area of interest.

"This combination of Internet-based, low-cost graphics, and new analytical tools [is ideal] for people who are not strong analysts," Sukman added.

While system operators use 2-D views of the PNVS, an executive dashboard provides 3-D images that, while highly informative, are less action-oriented.

AVS and ConEd have found a way to harness the power of interactive graphics to manage the power network. But in these days of increasing security consciousness, VizSim also provides valuable tools for maintaining safe and secure facilities.

VizSim For Utility IT and Physical Security

Computer Associates (CA) launched a security application this spring that makes substantial use of VizSim. Called eTrust 20/20, it provides interactive 3-D access to the large databases assembled by CA's eTrust suite of enterprise security products, which, among other functions, manage identity-based security, collect information regarding physical and electronic access to various internal and external assets by company personnel and others, and oversee electronic security of enterprise assets.

In a modern secure facility, employees' access rights are set in a central location. The security database will include such information as what buildings, floors, and rooms individuals may enter, and even what times they may enter. An individual's security profile will also include e-mail passwords, data access rights and passwords, and other information describing privileges and restrictions related to the physical and data security of the company. Typically, physical access is controlled by key cards or similar devices, and in high-security facilities, biometric devices. Logging is done continually, so after a period of time, a profile of each individual's activities is built.

Generally, this type of security does a good job of discouraging casual intruders and errant employees. But it has a major drawback. As time elapses, the security log files grow, and grow, and grow. What's more, few enterprises rely on just one vendor for security solutions, so they have to handle a variety of file and data formats. Analyzing the logs becomes less and less convenient, and finding valuable information becomes a data mining task that can be daunting and unrewarding.

Even if a security breach is narrowed down to a few suspects, analysis of the data is a significant task. That's where CA's new solution comes in. eTrust 20/20 is not particularly flashy. It displays information that has been consolidated from security logs by another CA product, eTrust Security Command Center, in an obvious and easy-to-read fashion. eTrust 20/20 uses 3-D graphics in an unusually smart way, to provide information that is easy to grasp and easy to manipulate.

For example, say that the security chief of XYZ Power and Light gets a report that one of its competitors is about to release a product suspiciously similar to the one her company has in closed beta testing. In fact, she discovers that ABC Inc.'s product is so similar to her company's new invention that only someone with access to the company's trade secrets could have developed it. Who provided the information to ABC Inc.?

Knowing there were only a few dozen people with access to this information, the security chief calls up her access logs in eTrust 20/20 and looks at their activities. Sure enough, one of them has been coming in exceptionally early and has been going to offices where he normally would have no business. eTrust 20/20 enables the security team to bypass reams of log data by showing a detailed view of the suspect's movements over time, in a 3-D representation of the facility. Physical access, Web access, e-mail activity, even shots from a surveillance camera are all presented as requested, organized by date, time, location, or data types. Tracking is based on a rules database, similar to the policy databases commonly used for setting network access rights.

Plant Design and Construction Automation

Every public utility has to manage physical plant assets. This involves maintaining and remodeling older buildings and plants, and specifying, designing, and building new ones. Even in a field as old and conservative as industrial construction, VizSim is creating opportunities to reduce design time while creating more useful and cost-effective building designs.

The Beck Group of Dallas has developed an innovative building design and estimating tool that it says is helping them not just build better buildings, but to build them faster and at lower cost. Their tool is called DESTINI (Design Estimating Integration Initiative), a parametric design tool that takes building design a step beyond CAD, into the future of automated design. It does this by allowing the designer to specify a type of building-several low-rise office campus styles are currently available-choose from a list of available materials, specify the size and number of floors, and step back. In a few minutes the program selects the appropriate components from its large library and assembles them into a 3-D rendering of a building. At that point the designer and client may modify the design, experiment with different floor plans or building types, rearrange the interior, and generally make the building fit the client's needs. Another button causes the program to develop a bill of materials, a cost estimate, and a timeline.

The system also calculates energy consumption. The designer also can experiment with different types and placement of windows, and she can even rotate the building on the lot in increments of as little as 1 degree per move, recalculating energy requirements at each step.

When the design is approved, DESTINI then creates design development drawings, which are finished in AutoCAD prior to starting the job. Each iteration of design change and new drawings takes just a few minutes, so it is practical to look at dozens of variations. According to Beck, DESTINI can reduce the time from initial customer meeting to groundbreaking by as much as 40 percent. This is another case where VizSim saves time and money in the real world.

The Market for VizSim Systems

Training, security, CAD/CAM visualization, and virtual prototyping are among the other likely VizSim applications for the public utilities industry. VizSim is no longer a science fiction technology; it is a large and growing industry.

CyberEdge Information Services conducts an annual survey of the VizSim marketplace. Last year, the study showed the international value of the industry was more than $36 billion in goods and services. There were more than 308,000 VizSim systems sold in 2002, and more than 12,000 companies are involved, either as vendors or users of systems worldwide.

While there seems to be an unending number of applications for which VizSim adds value, one constant is that the cost and ease-of-use factors are improving almost daily. As the prices for powerful computers continue to decrease, the ease of developing and using VizSim is increasing. There are many reasons to consider VizSim as a reliable and affordable asset to add to the mix of IT tools used by public utilities in every aspect of their businesses.

Virtual Reality: A Quick History

The roots of visual simulation go far back into the twentieth century, back to the 1931 patent issued to Edwin A. Link for the Link Flight Simulator. His stub-winged, pitching pneumatic monster was able to accurately model the flight characteristics of a variety of contemporaneous aircraft. The Army Air Corp recognized the value of Link's simulators and trained thousands of World War II combat pilots on them. Not long after the war, mechanical simulators controlled by computers started to be put into service, making flight simulation more realistic. These systems often flew closed-circuit TV cameras over scale models of enemy territory. The TV image was displayed in the window of the simulator's cabin. Unfortunately, it was all too easy to fly off the edge of the earth with these simulators, as the camera range was exceeded.

The first success at an interactive, fully computer-generated visual simulation occurred in 1965 at MIT's Lincoln Lab. There, Ivan Sutherland built a system called Sketchpad-an interactive system that made it possible for the user to both create in 3-D and view the images from any position in space. Sketchpad combined a pair of small TV screens, placed one in front of each eye, with a computer powerful enough to redraw a wireframe 3-D graphic image 10 times per second. What made Sketchpad truly revolutionary was the head-mounted display system, which was attached to the ceiling by a mechanical tracking system that told the computer where the user was looking.

By the mid-1990s, virtual reality game centers had sprung up around the world, and millions of people paid $5 to $10 for the opportunity to experience a virtual world. But these over-hyped systems were not up to the demands of serious work. It wasn't until the turn of the century that reliable, powerful computing platforms became affordable enough for wide distribution. Today, a high-end office PC is easily capable of running simulation-based training or data visualization.

Most current VizSim applications don't rely much on the offspring of Sutherland's head-mounted display. But his ideas regarding the ability to interact freely with a three-dimensional computing display and simulation systems has led to a multitude of VizSim systems being used in many areas of public utility-related activities.

A modern VizSim system consists of four main components. The simulation engine is the computer running the actual simulation program and coordinating the system activity. The database server provides the data needed to run the simulation and descriptions of the objects shown to the user. A visualization system takes the output of the simulation and renders it on the display system. The input/output controller accepts input from the navigation device and from the tracking system, and outputs feedback and sound. All of this must happen simultaneously, ideally every thirtieth of a second, to provide smooth animation.

The functions of a VizSim system may be distributed among several computers or concentrated in a single PC, depending on the complexity of the requirements. Systems range in price from a few thousand dollars up to multimillions-in 2002 the average price worldwide was $141,510. -B.D.

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