information and reach decisions more quickly about whether to drill in certain areas. In the three-dimensional immersive environment, geologists and geophysicists can locate hydrocarbons more precisely. Faster data processing and three-dimensional views can translate into less time from inception to drilling of a well, and the more accurate the information, the better the chance of striking oil.

The three-dimensional immersive technology is "not as readily available to the smaller, independent companies in Louisiana as it is to the big oil companies based in Houston," said Gregg Gothreaux, president and CEO of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, one of LITE's sponsoring organizations.

LITE's first business tenants are oil and gas services companies Stone Energy and Merlin Oil and Gas Inc., as well as C.H. Fenstermaker and Associates, a surveying and mapping firm.

Yet Gothreaux said the oil industry would not necessarily be its primary application.

"Every day we talk to someone interested in LITE, and it's across the spectrum, from medicine to the automotive industry to manufacturing," he said, noting that Louisianans see the collaboration that created LITE as a harbinger of things to come. "This will promote government-industry-university cooperation. First, it should attract people doing R&D in different fields. That should lead to economic development opportunities."

One of the claims has been that LITE should attract researchers to Lafayette. In that regard, it has already partially succeeded with the recruitment of Carolina Cruz, LITE's chief scientist, who recently joined the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, from Iowa State University.

Known for her work in virtual reality environments, Cruz said she expects other researchers will soon follow her to Lafayette. At Iowa State, she worked on virtual reality environment projects for General Motors and the Argonne National Laboratory. Cruz was drawn to LITE's blend of academic research and economic development.

"The fact that the center was going to have industry residents was very appealing," she said, adding that the potential for software spin-offs from LITE is good. "The university is eager to do tech transfer and take advantage of its intellectual property."

Cruz said she is assembling a research team of eight high-level positions, complemented by graduate students and local professionals, to occupy 5,000 square feet of the new center.

Hurricane Recovery Tool?

As the region struggles to recover from Katrina, LITE representatives are talking to local government agencies involved in reconstruction and emergency management. Members of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state agency in charge of rebuilding, are currently planning for the next disaster.

"They were extremely excited after meeting with us about the possibility for supercomputers to model the rebuilding of highways, bridges and levees," Kolluru said.

With GIS and aerial images, researchers can simulate the effect of tidal events on critical infrastructure, he added. For instance, LITE could have been used to simulate how long it would take New Orleans to drain after the flood, or as a virtual command and control center in a hurricane.

Although no deals have been announced yet, Kolluru said conversations are under way about how LITE can use high-performance computing to benefit Louisiana.

"We expect that to be a significant part of our mission, and we expect several projects to emerge out of that soon," he said.

It's too early to say whether the center will provide the economic development boost local officials are hoping for, but Gothreaux believes that, combined with the research-and-development tax credit, the infrastructure investments provide his organization a great recruiting tool.

In addition to LITE, Lafayette will also soon boast widespread fiber-optic network. In 2005, voters approved a $115 million budget to expand its 65-mile municipal fiber loop to every home and business in the city.

"We believe we will be the only community in the country that will allow small and medium-size businesses located anywhere on our fiber loop to use a resource like LITE for supercomputing or remote visualization from their office," Gothreaux said.

The project could include other universities in the state affiliated with the LONI network or nationally with the LambdaRail network, he said.

"We know of no place else in the country where that's possible -- and we've looked."

David Raths  |  contributing writer