A university researcher has developed a parallel computer for cardiac research using the graphics chip in an Xbox 360.
In an article published in the Journal of Computational Biology, Simon Scarle, a researcher in the University of Warwick's WMG Digital Laboratory, has described how researchers trying to model a range of processes could use the power and capabilities of a particular Xbox chip as a much cheaper alternative to other forms of parallel processing hardware.
His research shows that a single Xbox could be used as a desktop parallel computer, allowing researchers to run proof-of-concept simulations rapidly, without the complexity of programming a parallel computer network. "The GPU in the Xbox is equivalent to about a 10 to 15 node parallel computer network," he said.
Scarle, who has a background in the computer games industry, said he was aware of the parallel processing power of the graphical processing unit (GPU) used in the Xbox 360 to render graphics.
He used the Xbox 360 to model how electrical excitations in the heart moved around damaged cardiac cells to investigate or even predict cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal electrical activity in the heart which can lead to a heart attack). To conduct these simulations using traditional CPU-based processing one would normally need to book time on a dedicated parallel processing computer or spend thousands of pounds on a parallel network of PCs.
Scarle said, "This is a highly effective way of carrying out high-end parallel computing on 'domestic' hardware for cardiac simulations. Although major reworking of any previous code framework is required, the Xbox 360 is a very easy platform to develop for and this cost can easily be outweighed by the benefits in gained computational power and speed, as well as the relative ease of visualisation of the system."
Programming was relatively straightforward, said Scarle, as the GPU could be coded in the Xbox 360's High Level Shader Language. However, he needed to recode the simulation algorithms to run on the Xbox 360's GPU. So instead of rendering graphics, Scarle programmed the GPU to perform parallel computing calculations required to run the cardiac simulations.