Computer firm aims to extend 3D across multiple platforms

February 11, 2006

Mercury Computer doesn't make scanners or information systems, it just makes them go faster. CT and MR systems, PACS, and other imaging equipment operating at installations around the globe have depended for years on hardware and software developed by the Chelmsford, MA, company. Its computer boards rapidly process the signals acquired during scans or the data needed for volumetric reconstructions. The data appear in a split second on consoles and workstations, partly because of Mercury Computer technologies. Soon a new breed of Mercury components will make the process even faster.

Mercury Computer doesn't make scanners or information systems, it just makes them go faster. CT and MR systems, PACS, and other imaging equipment operating at installations around the globe have depended for years on hardware and software developed by the Chelmsford, MA, company. Its computer boards rapidly process the signals acquired during scans or the data needed for volumetric reconstructions. The data appear in a split second on consoles and workstations, partly because of Mercury Computer technologies. Soon a new breed of Mercury components will make the process even faster.

The first is the company's Dual Cell-Based Blade BE (broadband engine), which is built around a new kind of processor called Cell. Blade BE integrates two such processors and a memory chip onto a computer board. The second device, the Turismo, can be packed with as many as four processors, but it is composed of several boards and, therefore, requires about as much space as a PC tower.

Major manufacturers are now evaluating Mercury's Blade BE to see how it might boost the performance of upcoming products. It is scheduled for production by the end of this year. Evaluation units of Turismo will be available to OEMs in the third quarter of 2006, and production is planned for early 2007.

These components promise to deliver reconstructions several orders of magnitude faster than currently possible, with better image quality, according to Marcelo G. Lima, Mercury's vice president of life sciences and of commercial imaging and visualization solutions. Both capabilities come from Cell's ability to process more data faster.

Faster data handling is leveraged to run complex data filters that improve image quality. These filters are particularly important when doing dynamic or iterative reconstructions to get the best quality images, Lima said.

"You can go for brute force speed, or you can go for image quality improvements," he said. "Either way, Cell technology will change how we do things."

Cell has been around only since mid-2005. The processor combines eight synergistic computing elements and a controller into a single 64-bit central processing unit, all sharing the same memory and delivering a peak performance of more than 200 billion operations per second. It was developed as part of a joint venture by IBM, Toshiba, and Sony Group to handle the kind of rapid image rendering demanded by high-performance video games. Cell will appear later this year in Sony's PlayStation 3 and a line of its high-definition television systems.

IBM approached Mercury in early 2005 with the idea of developing this technology for applications outside consumer electronics. Mercury has since incorporated Cell into defense, life sciences, seismic, and industrial applications.

Other companies can license the Cell technology from IBM, just as Mercury has done. But Mercury has an advantage in leveraging Cell, given its decades-long experience in developing computing components for the imaging industry. Because Mercury sells its components to all vendors, rather than entering into exclusive supplier agreements, the benefits will be ubiquitous in the imaging community.

"Our vision is to extend 3D for reconstruction, visualization, image distribution, and management across multiple platforms," Lima said.

At the RSNA meeting, Mercury branded its role in the industry with the slogan "3D to the Core." The corporate strategy is to provide the computing horsepower to integrate 3D visualization into diagnostic workflow. Integrating Cell into components for the medical imaging industry is only one expression of this strategy. Another is Mercury's Visage software.

Visage accelerates image reconstruction between 40 to 60 times, providing advanced 3D imaging for CT, MR, ultrasound, digital x-ray, molecular imaging, and breast tomosynthesis. At the RSNA meeting, Mercury framed its Visage CS (client/server) as the means for OEMs to empower PCs and laptops throughout a network with 3D capabilities. Commands issued on a PC are executed so rapidly by Visage CS that reconstructions appear as though they were performed live onboard the PC, according to Lima. Visage CS could be plugged into legacy hospital IT systems, eliminating a hospital's reliance on a few expensive 3D workstations.

The technology is being tested at major institutions, including the Baltimore VA Medical Center, which is affiliated with the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Luminaries there are examining the clinical impact of integrating 3D into PACS.

"The biggest barrier to the transition to 3D imaging has been the lack of integration of this capability into PACS workstations," said Dr. Eliot Siegel, vice chair of information systems and chief of radiology of the VA Maryland Health Care System. "In the next few years, advanced 3D visualization, image processing, and analysis will be performed centrally, with resources shared across the network."

Mercury wants to make this happen. If it succeeds, other companies will likely get the credit. And that's fine by Mercury. Elbowing into the spotlight is just not its style.