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Section: Scientific Foundations

Interactivity

Participants : Vincent Danjean, Pierre-Fran├žois Dutot, Thierry Gautier, Bruno Raffin, Jean-Louis Roch.

The goal of this theme is to develop approaches to tackle interactivity in the context of large scale distributed applications.

We distinguish 2 types of interactions. A user can interact with an application having only little insight about the internal details of the program running. This is typically the case for a virtual reality application where the user just manipulates 3D objects. We have a "user-in-the-loop". In opposite, we have an "expert -in-the-loop" if the user is an expert that knows the limits of the progam that is being executed and that he can interacts with it to steer the execution. This is the case for instance when the user can change some parameters during the execution to improve the convergence of a computation.

User-in-the-loop

Some applications, like virtual reality applications, must comply with interactivity constraints. The user should be able to observe and interact with the application with an acceptable reaction delay. To reach this goal the user is often ready to accept a lower level of details. To execute such application on a distributed architecture requires to balance the workload and activation frequency of the different tasks. The goal is to optimize CPU and network resource use to get as close as possible to the reactivity/level of detail the user expect.

Virtual reality environments significantly improve the quality of the interaction by providing advanced interfaces. The display surface provided by multiple projectors in CAVE -like systems for instance, allows a high resolution rendering on a large surface. Stereoscopic visualization gives an information of depth. Sound and haptic systems (force feedback) can provide extra information in addition to visualized data. However driving such an environment requires an important computation power and raises difficult issues of synchronization to maintain the overall application coherent while guaranteeing a good latency, bandwidth (or refresh rate) and level of details. We define the coherency as the fact that the information provided to the different user senses at a given moment are related to the same simulated time.

Today's availability of high performance commodity components including networks, CPUs as well as graphics or sound cards make it possible to build large clusters or grid environments providing the necessary resources to enlarge the class of applications that can aspire to an interactive execution. However the approaches usually used for mid size parallel machines are not adapted. Typically, there exist two different approaches to handle data exchange between the processes (or threads). The synchronous (or FIFO) approach ensures all messages sent are received in the order they were sent. In this case, a process cannot compute a new state if all incoming buffers do not store at least one message each. As a consequence, the application refresh rate is driven by the slowest process. This can be improved if the user knows the relative speed of each module and specify a read frequency on each of the incoming buffers. This approach ensures a strong coherency but impact on latency. This is the approach commonly used to ensure the global coherency of the images displayed in multi-projector environments.The other approach, the asynchronous one, comes from sampling systems. The producer updates data in a shared buffer asynchronously read by the consumer. Some updates may be lost if the consumer is slower than the producer. The process refresh rates are therefore totally independent. Latency is improved as produced data are consumed as soon as possible, but no coherency is ensured. This approach is commonly used when coupling haptic and visualization systems. A fine tuning of the application usually leads to satisfactory results where the user does not experience major incoherences. However, in both cases, increasing the number of computing nodes quickly makes infeasible hand tuning to keep coherency and good performance.

We propose to develop techniques to manage a distributed interactive application regarding the following criteria :

We developed a programming environment, called FlowVR, that enables the expression and realization of loosen but controlled coherency policies between data flows. The goal is to give users the possibility to express a large variety of coherency policies from a strong coherency based on a synchronous approach to an uncontrolled coherency based on an asynchronous approach. It enables the user to loosen coherency where it is acceptable, to improve asynchronism and thus performance. This approach maximizes the refresh rate and minimizes the latency given the coherency policy and a fixed level of details. It still requires the user to tune many parameters. In a second step, we are planning to explore auto-adaptive techniques that enable to decrease the number of parameters that must be user tuned. The goal is to take into account (possibly dynamically) user specified high level parameters like target latencies, bandwidths and levels of details, and to have the system automatically adapt to reach a trade-off given the user wishes and the resources available. Issues include multi-criterion optimizations, adaptive algorithmic schemes, distributed decision making, global stability and balance of the regulation effort.

Expert-in-the-loop

Some applications can be interactively guided by an expert who may give advices or answer specific questions to hasten a problem resolution. A theoretical framework has been developed in the last decade to define precisely the complexity of a problem when interactions with an expert is allowed. We are studying these interactive proof systems and interactive complexity classes in order to define efficient interactive algorithms dedicated to scheduling problems. This, in particular, applies to load-balancing of interactive simulations when a user interaction can generate a sudden surge of imbalance which could be easily predicted by an operator.