Last week, after three years of development, the world's largest equities market - and the biggest name in Wall Street, booted up the first-ever 3D virtual trading floor. This meant that a real-time model of all the business currently taking place was near instantaneously evoked in a graph- heavy Technicolor landscape projected on to a 7ft square video wall. The business of graphically representing how 800 million shares a day are traded was under way.
The "3D Trading Floor" (3DTF) uses state-of-the-art technology, including flat-screen plasma monitors and Silicon Graphics Onyx workstations to allow stock exchange staff to navigate through continuously updated trading information in real time and in three dimensions.
Although the installation is an impressive piece of eye candy and will be used as a telegenic backdrop for television news reports, the 3DTF is not a toy; it fulfils some key objectives for the operations staff at the stock exchange.
In the first instance, its composite modelling of every trade into an ever-fluctuating series of graphs quickly enables staff to monitor how busy the networks are and to identify possible stress points. If the market is heading towards a crash or the volume of trade is overloading the computer servers, the model's real-time image will show where the danger is.
And, with recent global financial events demonstrating that bouts of market instability currently seem endemic, the 3DTF provides a powerful analytical tool.
"After close of day we simulate market failure. We're continually verifying the model against other sources of the same data to make sure that it is representing those exceptional conditions correctly," says Anne Allen, whose role, as the senior vice-president responsible for floor operations, is to ensure that the stock market runs smoothly and efficiently.
Since the data and the model are continuously backed-up, operations staff can travel back and forth in time within the model to examine in greater detail how it was that certain situations arose. Combine that with the ability to zoom in with ever greater detail down to the level of individual stocks and how they are being traded, then system events, such as the rush to purchase a certain stock based on insider trading, can be investigated retrospectively.
Wall Street has a tradition of embracing cutting-edge information technology. From the stock ticker of 1867 and the installation of telephones on the trading floor in 1878 to the wireless handsets of the 1990s, the NYSE has always recognised that the trading of stock is essentially an information exchange and that, therefore, it benefits from technologies which make it more transparent and reliable. So now, with the 3DTF, users can visually surf the data world that, at its core, the stock exchange essentially is.
However, are people properly equipped to immerse themselves in such a dynamic 3D model? "We've spent a lot of time on usablity," says Ms Allen.
"If you don't do the 3D well or if you do the animation badly, you can really upset users when they look at the screen because it can almost make you feel sea-sick. It can also be unsettling if you are flying through space that isn't normal space to fly through, or if you are doing it too fast or too abruptly."
Creating such data-rich yet instantly navigable virtual spaces isn't an established business, so who are the designers? Video game developers? Television studios? No - a good old-fashioned architecture practice is behind the design of the 3DTF. Hani Rashid, the co-founder of Asymptote, based in Manhattan, was employed by the NYSE to design the 3DTF. Although it has done the bricks and mortar thing before, Asymptote specialises in designing elaborate information spaces that essentially exist inside a computer's circuitry and come to life through the eyes of users.
At the NYSE Asymptote built both the 3D world and its surrounding operational area, which, with its metal-clad walls, orbiting electronic message board and curved blue glass walls, looks like a posh Sega World.
"The area that we redesigned and built for the exchange brings to reality our idea of incorporating and fusing real-time, first reality environments with virtual architectures," Rashid says. "This is the area that we are concentrating on and pursuing as an architectural firm." Rashid says.
In its early days, the 3DTF is running as a barely inhabited systems administration application, but soon the virtual landscape will become more crowded as TV news anchors and Wall Street superstars are superimposed inside the model using fixed cameras and blue-screen backgrounds. Rashid wants eventually to add extra realism by providing virtual reality headsets.
So what about the traders themselves, who a decade ago operated effectively as long as they had a constant supply of sharpened pencils? Could they, like William Gibson's "data-jockeys" in the novel Neuromancer, become the new stars of this world, and will their skills change as they learn to surf the 3D world in search of a bargain trade?
"We're looking at this almost as a living laboratory, and, as people are looking and getting familiar with it, it seems there will be a likely transfer of the technology to the trading arena," says Ms Allen. "All the instincts and psyche that make a trader a good trader will be retained. What we're doing is simply improving the tools.
"Now the computer takes in all the data and synthesises it for you and presents it in clear and intuitive ways that people can then use to make their trading decision"
If the number of mini-crashes and booms we've seen this year is any indication of what's to come, then those SGI Onyx supercomputers are in for number- crunching nirvana.