Paul Rajlich
Research Programmer
Visualization and Virtual Environments
National Center for Supercomputing Applications
River Pilot Simulator Prototype


The simulation is data-driven. The terrain is generated using real elevation data and real landcover data. The landcover data is used to color the terrain according to vegetation type and to populate it with trees. The water surface is colored according to depth from real channel data.

The movement of the vessel is computed using a physics-based model. A tow is very difficult to steer because once it gets moving it has a lot of inertia.


I am responsible for the main simulation component of this project. I am implementing the 3D engine using IRIS Performer.

The user can switch between several different camera views. This is the first-person view from the pilot house. Much like in real life, the view from the pilot house is quite restricted. Most users prefer one of the birds-eye views.

The tugboat model was created by Dave "Diode" Hayashida. The barge model was the combined work of Dave and Jon Stuyvesant.

Flow Display

The user can toggle the display of the flow field. The flow field is computed using real river data and a scientific model of river flow. Understanding the river currents is essential to piloting the tow successfully.

Bill Brown is responsible for most of the data preparation for this project. Mingshi is responsible for the flow computation.


A big part of the simulator experience is the sound. Camille Goudeseune created a procedural engine sound using vss that can be modified dynamically based on the throttle position. The sound shakes the whole casing and can be heard across the gallery. It definitely helps attract visitors to the exhibit. : )

Alan Craig composed the theme music.

Digital Camera Pics

Albert and I in front of the prototype. The casing for the exhibit was designed by the museum. It is very nice and the look matches the real tugboat that is on display just outside those windows in the background.

The primary display for the exhibit is a 50" Pioneer plasma screen. The primary machine driving the simulation is a SGI Octane MXE on loan from SGI.

Console and Controllers

Albert is responsible for the console and controllers. The console displays a map-view. It shows the current location, current heading, path traveled, current speed, distance traveled, and time remaining. The console "look" was designed by Thanh Tran. The controllers for the tiller and throttle are modified Happ arcade controls.

Albert's console is a separate application that runs on a Linux box. It communicates with the SGI Octane over a local network.


After we installed the exhibit, we stayed for opening day and were able to observe visitors interacting with the exhibit and each other. The overall reaction to the simulator was very positive and most visitors picked up on the core concepts very quickly. In this picture, Doug Johnston, the technical lead for the RiverWeb project, is observing a father and son interacting with the exhibit.

(C)opyright 2003, Paul Rajlich       Want to see what I am doing now? Visit