Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Visual Science Takes Another Big Leap

A 360-degree Virtual Reality Chamber brings researchers face to face with their data. Scientists can climb inside the University of California, Santa Barbara's three-story-high AlloSphere for a life-size interaction with their research.

The AlloSphere, a unique virtual reality environment turns large data sets into immersive experiences of sight and sound. Inside its three-story metal sphere researchers can interpret and interact with their data in new and intriguing ways, including watching electrons spin from inside an atom or "flying" through an MRI scan of a patient's brain as blood density levels play as music.

Housed in a 5,760-square-meter space in the California NanoSystems Institute building, the AlloSphere is essentially a house-size digital microscope powered by a supercomputer. Its outer chamber is a cube covered with sound-absorbing material, making it one of the largest near-anechoic (nonechoing) spaces in the world. Inside are two joined hemispheres of perforated aluminum that contain a suspended bridge.

More than 500 audio elements—woofers, tweeters and the like—are suspended in rings just outside the hemispheres. High-resolution video projectors can project images across the entire inner surface. The result is something far beyond other virtual reality systems such as a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) or a planetarium: 360 degrees of sounds and images in a chamber large enough to hold 30 or more researchers at once.

It is a real research instrument, not a virtual-reality environment for entertainment. The bridge is often crowded with physicists, engineers, computer scientists and artists working on projects for weeks or months at a time. Researchers interact with their data, which can be streamed live, using 3-D glasses, special wireless controllers, and sensors embedded in the bridge's railings. (Gesture control and voice recognition are in the works.)

Inside the AlloSphere, researchers can use a joystick to maneuver through three-dimensional constellations of the atoms. There is a project to visualize measurements of the background radiation of the universe made by the European Space Agency's Planck satellite. Viewers can see the microwave residue from the big bang "painted" across the sphere of the sky, and—after the data are translated for human ears—hear a version of what the early universe may have sounded like.

Another ongoing project is attempting to model the time-dependent Schrödinger equation, which describes the electron's changing quantum states. The instrument has been operating since 2007, but its systems are continually being developed and upgraded. In a year the school plans to have it operating at levels approaching the limits of our perception of actual reality: a visual resolution of 24 million pixels [on the entire surface] and a full 512-channel sound system.

Click on the heading above to see a video about the Allosphere.

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