Friday, January 30, 2015

Virtual mummies!

This TED talk by David Hughes, mentions the virtual reality Mummy project that I worked on back in the day at SGI. It's a great talk and well worth listening to. It inspired me to write about my bit of that project.

Back in 2001 David had arranged for one of mummies from the British Museum to be taken to University College hospital in London and scanned using a computerized tomography (CAT) scanner. The mummy chosen was that of an Egyptian priest named Nesperennub, who lived in Thebes in around 800BC.

I was working for SGI's professional services group in the UK at the time and was tasked with writing the software to visualize the CAT scan data. I had been using SGI's OpenGL based volume rendering API, Volumizer quite a bit, so it seemed like an obvious choice for implementing the software.

The application I wrote took the CAT scan data (basically huge 3D arrays of floats) and visualized it in real time. I distinctly remember the moment when it went from a data processing problem (how do I get sensible values out of these billions of apparently random bits?), to an actual mummy, named Nesperennub, being drawn on the screen. It didn't help the sense of creepiness that I was alone in the office at the weekend when this happened.
Look, a mummy!

Volumizer worked by breaking the volume down into tetrahedra then rendering each of these as multiple 2D slices aligned to the view direction, this technique is called volume slicing. The slices were rasterized as triangles with a 3D texture applied to them that contained the volume data. The resulting fragments were then drawn using alpha blending to create the final image.  
Volume slicing
3D textures were at that time a very sophisticated GPU feature that required graphics hardware like SGI's InfiniteReality, which featured on the Onyx line of visual supercomputers which my software ran on. These GPUs had 100s of megabytes of texture memory, which for the time was an obscene amount!
Onyx2 visual super computers

X-rays had been taken of Nesperennub in the 1960s that revealed a mysterious object on his head. In my application different materials could be highlighted using a dynamic color look-up table. Lookup tables like this were easy to implement in Volumizer. As this was before programmable shaders were common in realtime, under the hood OpenGL's color table feature was used to create this effect. In the final renderered image different densities in the CAT data were represented as different colours. Some colours in the table could be partially, or completely, transparent so that some materials became see-through. 

Using this technique it became very clear that the mysterious object was in fact a clay bowl. The most likely explanation is that during the embalming process the bowl (which was probably used to pour resin on the corpse) became stuck and the embalmers decided to simply carry on with wrapping the body with the bowl still attached. The embalmers probably thought they'd gotten away with it too. But several millennia later their shoddy workmanship was revealed to the world!
Volume rendering, exposing shoddy embalming since 2001
The application got an incredible amount of press and I spent most of the next year showing it to everyone from Nature to CNN (and a British kids TV show, we actually took the Onyx demo machine and the actual mummy on set for them).  It was also featured on SGI's booth at Siggraph 2002 in San Antonio, where it was used to promote the newly release InfiniteReality4 graphics hardware.

The software was ultimately turned into an exhibit at the British Musuem called Mummy: The Inside Story. I didn't survive the next round of layoffs at SGI (which was in serious trouble as a company while all this was going on), and left in 2002, so didn't have much to do with this process (though I did get a "special thanks" credit in the book of the exhibit). This remains the coolest project I ever worked on. In particular Dr John Taylor the Egyptologist at the British Museum, who we worked with, is a great guy (and at one point gave us a tour of the back rooms at the British Musuem which is unbelievably cool)

One historical side note is that the mummy of Nesperennub's wife has unfortunately disappeared. In the Victorian era "mummy unwrapping parties" were popular in the west, which resulted in the destruction of many irreplaceable ancient mummies, so this may have been her fate.  Her cartonnage, however, survives so we know her name was Neskhonspakhered. Weirdly, just like me, she ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can visit all that remains of her right here at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley.
Cartonnage of Neskhonspakhered, the wife of Nesperrenub, 

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