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August 5, 2005

Looking Back to See the Future

by Tim Curns, Editor

Researchers, through a combined and collaborative effort, have resurrected the dead.

But it's not exactly what you think.

In a press conference at the headquarters of Silicon Graphics, a team of scientists allowed attendees to literally come face to face with the rare mummified remains of 2,000 year old ancient Egyptian child. Equipped with the most detailed 3D models ever created of a mummy, the experts showed how 60,000 exceptionally high-resolution 2D scans helped them breathe life into the mummified child without disturbing its delicate form.

By using these models, which represent the highest quality interactive visualization ever of a mummy, various specialists from Stanford University School of Medicine and the Stanford-NASA National Biocomputation Center arrived at several conclusions about the child who lived and died 2,000 years ago.

Curators at San Jose's Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and Planetarium, having housed the mummy since 1930, have named the child Sherit, an ancient Egyptian name that means “little one.”

For the project, radiologists at Stanford University School of Medicine used an AXIOM Siemens scanner, one of only five CT scanners in the world capable of producing such high-resolution images. Stanford Radiology's state-of-the-art scanner generated 2D slices as thin as 200 microns — several times thinner than the 750-micron slices used to create the popular 3D visualization of King Tutankhamen's mummy. In fact, at 92GB, Stanford Radiology's child mummy scans generated nearly 35 times more information than the scans conducted on King Tut, which were highly publicized.

To combine that information into a fully interactive 3D model of the entire mummy and its contents, researchers relied on the Silicon Graphics Prism visualization platform with Intel Itanium 2 processors running VGL software from Germany's Volume Graphics GmbH. With Volume Graphics' real-time ray tracing technology — similar to that used to create hit animated motion pictures — researchers were able to generate a 3D model of incomparable quality and fidelity. The Volume Graphics software was able to scale extremely well on the SGI shared memory systems. Afshad Mistri, advanced visualization marketing at SGI, admitted that Volume Graphics is “the best kept secret” in visualization software.

The researchers, after sharing their examinations of the mummy's hands, teeth, feet, skull, groin, spine and chest plate, reached several probably conclusions regarding the mummy:

Sherit was a female who was between 41/2 and 51/2 years old when she died;

Her remains show no signs of injury, which suggests she likely died from a common intestinal illness or other disease (in fact, half of all Egyptian children died before their fifth year); and

Scented resin was mixed and applied on the mummy's golden face mask, a sign that her family was wealthy.

“Real anatomy exists in three dimensions, so any time you can view anatomical data in 3D, you'll have a much more accurate picture of the subject,” said Paul Brown, DDS, of the Stanford-NASA National Biocomputation Center. Brown and a team of fellow dentists, orthodontists and oral surgeons determined the mummy's age and other features by studying the 3D visualization. “Even multiple two-dimensional CT slices can never allow you to understand a subject's dental condition as quickly or as accurately as a quality 3D visualization.”

The technology used to reach back in time has serious implications for the future, as well. Brown believes the high-resolution scanning and visualization technology is currently changing the face of medical, dental and orthodontic procedures. The same technology used to study the mummy helps to speed diagnoses, plan surgeries and predict growth patterns as well.

“I've worked with high-resolution 3D visualizations for years,” added Brown, who has performed more than 35,000 root canals and today conducts research at Stanford and teaches at two other California universities. “By far, this is the best visualization I've ever seen. There is no comparison.”

Dr. Eric Herbranson, DDS and visiting Researcher at NASA & Stanford University National Biocomputation Center, expanded by saying, “The mummy is a compelling story, I think, and it gets everybody's juices flowing and hooks the public in, but the real story here is that you're looking at the future of medical imagery. The fact that we can make high resolution 3D data sets interactive is going to make a huge difference in medical diagnosis, treatment and training.”

Some of the scientists were surprised by how well the visualizations came to fruition.

“Mummy visualizations are certainly growing more prevalent, but in terms of enabling technology, nothing else comes close to the quality, resolution and interactivity that we've achieved with SGI visualization systems,” said Lisa Schwappach-Shirriff, curator, Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and Planetarium, which previously had relied on X-rays taken in the 1960s for information on the child mummy. “With SGI making historic use of higher- resolution scans and volume visualization applications, scientists were able to model Sherit with unprecedented realism. The images of this little girl are breathtaking, and the details that we can see on her are nothing short of amazing.”

The findings were presented in the immersive SGI Reality Center Theater, equipped with a curved, 25-foot, 3,000-by-1,024 pixel projection screen. With the help of a Silicon Graphics Prism visualization system powered by 24 Itanium 2 processors and 30GB of main memory, attendees examined everything from the mummy's linen bandages to her gilded chest plate and remaining face mask.

In addition, reconstructive surgeon Stephen Schendel, MD, DDS, and professor of surgery at Stanford, led a team of scientists to create a physical replica of the young girl's face. By using their knowledge of Egyptian facial characteristics and studying the mummy's still-intact ears, the researchers leveraged the model to create a clay bust of the child's face.

“The bust brings to life the story of this little girl who lived at a time when Egyptians, Romans, Jews and Christians all lived side by side,” said Schwappach-Shirriff. “This mummy is no longer just a fascinating artifact, but a lively young child who lived many ages ago.”

To further bring the mummy to life, local scientists took microscopic samples from the resin protecting the mummy's face mask. The scientists then used gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and other techniques at Evans Analytical Group, and discovered components of the natural perfume within the resin. SGI then turned to Mandy Aftel, an alchemist and a renowned designer of natural fragrances, to recreate the ancient formula. At the press conference, Aftel described how she recreated the perfume. Then she distributed samples of it at the event, giving guests a rare chance to experience the genuine aroma of ancient funerary perfumes.

Ever since SGI pioneered detailed mummy visualization in 2003 with a groundbreaking project at the British Museum in London, museums around the world have conducted scan-based visualizations of their ancient mummified artifacts using a broad range of technologies.

While all of these efforts are aimed at engaging museum patrons with interactive 3D fly-throughs of mummies, today's SGI systems allow researchers to view and interact with exceptionally large and detailed 3D models. And in the two years since the British Museum project, SGI technology has grown more powerful and more affordable, making it an ideal solution for Egyptologists and institutes looking to maximize their understanding and appreciation of these unique objects of antiquity, while keeping the mummies fully intact.

“In just the past three years, both scanner technology and SGI visualization solutions have improved dramatically, as this new child mummy project attests,” said Mistri. “The resulting difference in quality between this and all other previous scans is instantly recognizable.”

“With the latest SGI systems and new ways to visualize volume data with such tools as Volume Graphics' latest VGL graphics technology, these mummies come to life, and seeing them projected on a large, immersive screen makes their impact even greater,” continued Mistri. “This is one more way in which SGI continues to push the limits of computing as the source of discovery and innovation for 3D visualization.”

The data explosion caused by next-generation scanners in turn requires world- class visualization solutions to create realistic, interactive 3D models. From San Jose to London, curators and archaeologists are leveraging this technology to discover the wealth of information locked beneath the bandages that have encased their relics for thousands of years.

Dr. Herbranson even hinted at the fact that Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and director of the Giza Pyramids Excavation in Egypt, may put together a computational research facility to scan all the mummies in their collection.

While they are key to medical imaging and research, SGI visualization technologies are also widely used by businesses across all major industries as unique strategic-planning, evaluation and research tools to solve some of the world's toughest business problems. These include seismic data analysis for oil and gas exploration and crash simulation and product design for the automobile industry.