Every day, researchers at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputer Applications remind themselves of one all-important rule: be famous, not popular. They simply can't collaborate with every researcher who wants to turn data into stunning images. So to keep the nation's scientists from descending on the midwestern computer wonderland, several NCSA projects are trying to take the supercomputer mountain to Mohammed. They aim to someday put the power of "visualization" on the desk of any scientist who owns nothing more sophisticated than a PC and a phone.

It's an ambitious goal, however, and roadblocks loom at every turn. Advanced graphics present some of the greatest challenges to today's computer computation and memory capacity, for example. To attain even a moderate level of realism and detail, each frame of an animation sequence must typically be drawn at a resolution of 1024 by 1024 "pixels," or dots on the screen....

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