Mercury Computer reinvents itself as supplier of 3D and 4D products

March 7, 2005

Mercury Computer Systems has emerged from the shadows of medical imaging with a portfolio of advanced processing products and services. The company, which previously served mostly as a supplier of 2D imaging components to major OEMs, has begun shopping 3D and 4D products around the imaging industry. These products vary from software only to software-hardware combinations and are designed to perform critical functions in diagnostic and interventional products, as well as PACS.

Mercury Computer Systems has emerged from the shadows of medical imaging with a portfolio of advanced processing products and services. The company, which previously served mostly as a supplier of 2D imaging components to major OEMs, has begun shopping 3D and 4D products around the imaging industry. These products vary from software only to software-hardware combinations and are designed to perform critical functions in diagnostic and interventional products, as well as PACS.

Mercury's new offerings fall into two categories: embedded components and turnkey systems. The embedded products, members of the VisageRT software family, are designed for integration into OEMs' existing systems. The turnkey workstations and software libraries, part of Mercury's ExamineRT family, use off-the-shelf hardware enhanced by accelerators developed by Mercury and its strategic partner NVIDIA, a developer of graphics and digital media processors. Both embedded and turnkey solutions are intended for sale to OEMs.

VisageRT works with mainstream processors and accelerators, providing advanced 3D imaging in digital modalities including CT, MR, ultrasound, digital x-ray, molecular imaging, and breast tomosynthesis. A customized application programming interface (API) allows seamless integration into existing products. It can be configured for 32- and 64-bit Microsoft Windows and Linux platforms.

"VisageRT is a toolkit library that provides an interface via API for OEMs that want to use their own graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and algorithms," said Marcelo G. Lima, vice president of Life Sciences, Imaging and Visualization Solutions at Mercury.

The library's compatibility with off-the-shelf technologies cuts OEMs' development costs and time to market for new products. Components based on VisageRT may be software only, or they may be hooked to multiple graphics processing units (GPUs) and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). GPUs are microprocessors built into graphics cards that speed the processing and display of complex data. FPGAs are integrated circuits that can be programmed in the field rather than at the factory to perform certain functions.

Volume rendering capabilities include multiplanar reformatting and thick slab rendering, maximum intensity projections, shaded volume rendering, shaded surface displays, flexible clipping, and perspective viewing. These components can be set to produce 3D displays at different resolutions, allowing operators to switch between high and low resolution interactively when dealing with large data sets.

Volume rendering capabilities also support the overlay of multiple data sets. These may include several MR sequences, coregistered data from different modalities such as CT and PET, or studies done at different times.

Mercury has leveraged VisageRT components to serve as the building blocks of its own turnkey offerings. This second class of products, the ExamineRT family of postprocessing software, combines VisageRT software with an interactive GUI.

"This customizable GUI is for smaller OEMs that don't have their own," Lima said.

ExamineRT software runs on stand-alone computing platforms, as well as scalable application servers that can be connected to multiple thin clients. For optimal performance, ExamineRT can be teamed with Mercury's XB series of modular and scalable workstations, which makes use of multiple processors and acceleration boards.

The first member of the XB series, called XBi, is based on Xeon processors and supports Windows and Linux operating systems. It offers advanced processing capabilities, wide bandwidth, 3D graphics, and acceleration options.

Mercury's GPeXpress accelerators are among these options. These accelerators can boost the speed of computation by several orders of magnitude. They match Quadro FX graphics technology developed by NVIDIA with specific features written into Mercury software.

These technologies offer OEMs a range of customization with configuration and performance scaled to meet specific needs. ExamineRT might take the form of a modality console, a diagnostic or interventional workstation, or a PACS viewer. It might be packaged as software only or bundled with a computing platform and accelerators. Mercury can provide the components or prepare a comprehensive turnkey system fully integrated into an OEM's products.

This flexibility allows the OEM to brand the technology as its own, integrate custom user interfaces, establish unique workflow characteristics, and tailor the final product to address specific applications. The end-user product - console, workstation, or PACS viewer - therefore has the look and feel of other products in the OEM's lineup.

Mercury's development of this product mix is part of an evolutionary process. The old Mercury was all about 2D slice reconstruction, according to Malte Westerhoff, chief technology officer for Mercury Life Sciences.

"We are the new Mercury," he said. "We are now 3D and 4D software and hardware solutions."

Much of the technology is homegrown, coming from Mercury's expertise in image and digital signal processing applications. The GPeXpress accelerator boards, however, were developed as part of an alliance between Mercury and NVIDIA, which developed the Quadro GPUs.

The first evidence of these advanced technologies is appearing in the end-user products of relatively small companies. Mercury announced at the 2004 RSNA meeting the integration of VisageRT technologies into a Web-based PACS from Radin Group and C-arm fluoroscopy system from Ziehm Imaging. In both cases, VisageRT supports advanced 3D processing.

Mercury chose to provide its latest technologies to these companies rather than the larger OEMs that for so long had been its bread and butter. Smaller companies are more open to new ideas and willing to accept products that are in their early stages of development, according to Lima.

"And they can make decisions quickly," he said.

Mercury is exploring other partnerships that follow more traditional routes. Some of the work that might lead to a future partnership began years ago, not with corporate R&D but with academicians. Mercury engineers in collaboration with researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital developed algorithms for processing data acquired during digital breast tomosynthesis, a process by which x-ray images of the breast are taken at multiple angles along an arc. These low-dose 2D images are compiled into a volumetric data set.

The algorithms, in combination with hardware accelerators provided by Mercury, cut the time for processing this data set from five hours to less than five minutes. MGH initially developed the concept of tomosynthesis and licensed the technology to GE Healthcare. The hospital is a key luminary site for the commercial development of GE's fledgling tomosynthesis product.

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