Predicted health-care bonanza spurs computer vendors to promotions

February 1, 1995

Sun and Silicon Graphics take aim at imaging Medical imaging's workstation vendors have yet to resort to cowboycostumes and animal sidekicks to move products, but they are turningup the promotional volume in anticipation of increased sales

Sun and Silicon Graphics take aim at imaging

Medical imaging's workstation vendors have yet to resort to cowboycostumes and animal sidekicks to move products, but they are turningup the promotional volume in anticipation of increased sales asmore hospitals move toward workstation-based digital imaging departments.

Market leader Sun Microsystems and emerging competitor SiliconGraphicsmade their biggest efforts to date at the 1994 Radiological Societyof North America meeting to show off new products and tout performancecapabilities. Both companies featured new low-cost, 24-bit colorworkstations and attempted to wow customers with the graphic wondersof their high-end systems.

For the second year running, Sun, of Mountain View, CA, collaboratedwith Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston to present a virtualreality classroom at InfoRAD. The 1994 demonstration was designedto familiarize radiologists with interactive 3-D visualization,according to Dr. Ron Kikinis, an associate professor of radiologyat Brigham and Women's Hospital.

More than 2500 visitors lined up for lessons presented on mouse-controlledSun Sparcstation 10s arranged in classroom style. Visitors worespecial glasses to manipulate the 3-D stereoscopic displays thatuntil recently could only be performed on laboratory-based researchworkstations, Kikinis said.

In its booth, Sun demonstrated the Hypersparc configurationof the new Sparcstation 20. The system, which was unveiled shortlybefore the RSNA show, was equipped with two 100-MHz Hypersparcmodules. Sun showed off the product's power by performing bilinearzooms of 512 x 512 angiography data at 33 frames per second.

Sparcstation 20 was introduced in mid-1994 as the successorto Sparcstation 10, Sun's popular top-of-the-line platform, accordingto Brian Healy, product manager of graphics and imaging. Processingimprovements in the Sparcstation 20 stem from a new SX processorthat accelerates panning, zooming, convolution and resizing, Healysaid. The 128-bit, 50-MHz bus processes data about 25% fasterthan Sparcstation 10.

Sun also featured Sparcstation 5-S24. This 24-bit color computeris marketed to OEMs as a low-cost PACS display station. A unitequipped with a 17-inch monitor costs as little as $6595, Healysaid.

SGI echoes economy theme. Economy was also a theme repeated atSiliconGraphics' booth. Michael Berman, marketing director ofchemical and health industries at the Mountain View, CA, firm,guided visitors directly to Indy, the company's newest economyplatform. The 24-bit color computer is available in configurationswithout disk drive for as little as $6000. Farther up the productline, the Indy XZ dedicates 128 megaflops of power to 3-D visualization,Berman said.

At the top of the line, SiliconGraphics demonstrated the PowerOnyx workstation equipped with a Reality Engine II image processor.The workstation was shown performing real-time volume rendering,fusing 3-D slices from CT and MRI in a 512 x 512 x 64-bit formatin less than 20 seconds.

"These techniques have been known algorithmically forat least 10 years, but we're showing how they can be performedinteractively, and it is that interactivity that changes how peoplework," Berman said.

Another example of multivolume rendering shown by SGI was anapplication that accentuates detail by casting illumination voxel-by-voxelfrom behind a region of interest. This was accomplished by renderingthe light source as a 3-D volume, Berman said.

Both companies displayed new telemedicine products. Sun featuredShowMe TV, a two-way video-conferencing system with white-boardcapability. It broadcasts video and audio from a miniature cameraand microphone mounted on top of the workstation monitor. ShowMeTV allows the user to display, control and record program materialbroadcast over a local area network.

"It can be used by radiologists to discuss a technicalfinding or in reaching a large audience with educational material,"Healy said.

SGI introduced In-Person, a similar teleconferencing systemwith multipage white board and 3-D image transmission capabilities.Images can be pinned on the white board, and annotated with text.Areas of interest can be circled or marked with arrows duringconsultations. Like the Sun product, In-Person uses a miniatureCCD camera and microphone that attaches to the workstation monitor.

While SGI generated considerable excitement, Sun remains byfar the dominant industry force in medical imaging workstations.The company claimed a 65% market share in 1994 with about 10,000Sun workstations in the field. It has OEM relationships with GE,Philips, Toshiba, Picker, Kodak, ADAC, ISG and Cemax, among others.

SGI has only recently begun to emphasize medical imaging. Thecompany is well-known for graphics software that produced spectacularspecial effects for movies like Terminator 2 and The Abyss. Thefast processing speed and memory requirements needed to performthose tricks are similar to technical challenges involved in medicalimaging, according to SGI officials.

SGI broke into the imaging market in 1993. An alliance withToshiba led to the adoption of SGI graphics boards and softwarefor Toshiba's mid-field Flexart MRI system. An SGI Onyx workstationappeared at the 1994 RSNA conference on Elscint's new PrestigeMRI system, and Indy and Indigo2 workstations popped up in thebooths of innovative software vendors like Focus Graphics, whichran its new 3-D image fusion software on an Indy.