Centre seen as ‘serious nirvana'

April 07, 2005, vol. 32, no. 7
By Carol Thorbes

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Move over creators of Max Head-room, Matrix and Metropolis. What researchers can accomplish at Simon Fraser University's IRMACS centre rivals the high tech feats of the most memorable futuristic films.

The $14 million centre's acronym stands for interdisciplinary research in the mathematical and computational sciences. The centre's expansive view of the Lower Mainland from atop Burnaby Mountain echoes its limitless potential as a facility dedicated to fostering interdisciplinary research among scientists whose primary lab tool is the computer.

A newly constructed 2,500 square metre space atop the applied sciences building, the centre has eight labs, five meeting rooms and a presentation theatre, seating up to 100 people. They are equipped with easily upgradeable computational, multimedia, internet and remote conferencing (including satellite) technology. High performance distributed computing and clustering technology, designed at SFU, and access to WestGrid, an ultra high-speed, interprovincial network, with shared computing and multimedia resources, make IRMACS unique in Western Canada.

The centre's reconfigurable resources and open spaces, and universal access to computers with one account and sign-on make collaborative research limitless, regardless of geography or discipline.

With its wrap-around, high-resolution projection display capable of giving the audience a virtual 3D experience, IRMACS' presentation theatre can connect researchers worldwide to discuss and manipulate structures in 3D. Plasma computer displays with touch-screen interfaces in the theatre and meeting rooms allow lecture and meeting notes to be captured in real time and later distributed in standard file formats.

When SFU mathematician and IRMACS executive director Peter Borwein and his colleagues first conceived of the facility in 1993, their philosophy was: “Let's build it and they will come,” recalls Borwein. There is no shortage, or limit to the kind of clients lining up to take advantage of the centre's collaborative learning, teaching, researching and conferencing environment.

And the fun has just begun predicts Borwein. He and his colleagues continually push the boundaries of the centre's capabilities with each new client.

“At any one time, we have 200 researchers in areas as diverse as genetics, telecommunications and network simulations collaborating with colleagues around the world,” explains Borwein.

“Faculty and senior administrators use our meeting rooms and presentation theatre to remote conference on a variety of topics ranging from research to hiring people. Tours of high school students coming through here think this is serious nirvana,” says Borwein with a chuckle.

The IRMACS centre is funded in part by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the British Columbia knowledge development fund and by Simon Fraser University.

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