Applying virtual reality to help scientists to see and handle their data is the aim of the Center for Image Processing and Integrated Computing (CIPIC) at the University of California, Davis. The center has also been teaching students how to build and work with virtual reality environments in one of a handful of courses of its kind in the U.S.
"It's about making the invisible visible," said Bernd Hamann, co-director of CIPIC.
The aims of CIPIC are to develop technology for handling very large amounts of data, to establish visualization technology at UC Davis, and to enable transfer of new inventions from the lab bench into industry, Hamann said.
Modern research generates huge volumes of data, for example from genome sequencing, satellite imaging, measuring traffic patterns or simulating very complex problems such as climate change. Medical imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) also generate huge datasets.
Virtual reality could be used for example to train doctors and surgeons, to let car designers try out styles before building a vehicle, or to help air traffic controllers work in three dimensions.
The simplest way to handle this data is to make it visible, so that scientists can "see" what is happening in an experiment. Virtual reality allows researchers to interact with the data while they are looking at it, making changes and seeing what happens.
The CIPIC virtual reality lab is currently equipped with an immersive workbench, which projects three-dimensional images onto a tilting table. Wearing goggles and special gloves connected to the computer, researchers can reach "into" the workbench, pick up virtual objects and move them around.
The lab plans to build a "cave," a room fitted with projectors generating three-dimensional images on the walls, floor and ceiling. This will let scientists literally walk around inside their data.
Through CIPIC and the computer science department, UC Davis is offering a graduate class in virtual reality -- one of a handful in the U.S. In the 2001 spring quarter, 11 students took the class, completing basic lectures and a 12-week project to build a virtual reality program. The class was developed by computer science professor Ken Joy and graduate student Falko Kuester.
"Pretty much all of the students were starting from zero in virtual reality," said Kuester. All of this year's students were computer science students. In future years, Joy hopes to bring in students from areas such as design, theater and dance, and biology to create interdisciplinary projects.
Student projects this year included a virtual modeling tool that lets a designer cut and mold shapes, a three-dimensional Web browser, a method to display virtual reality images on a handheld computer, and a visualization of data from a gliding competition.
Glider pilots use global positioning systems to record information on their location, height and speed, said Kuester. In gliding competitions, this data is used to work out who flew the furthest and for longest.
Analyzing this data, which is posted on the Internet by glider clubs, reveals information about the local climate, Kuester said. Gliders are very sensitive to changes in air temperature and currents. When dozens of gliders are flying in a big competition, they are actually collecting detailed data on the local weather and climate, he said. Virtual reality can make this data visible and easier to interpret.
Another major project is to build a visual atlas of the brains of humans and monkeys. Researchers at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, led by director Ted Jones, are collecting highly detailed images of the brain. They are also studying how genes are turned on and off in different parts of the brain, especially during mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia.
CIPIC's computer scientists will help the neuroscientists put this information together in a single image database. Eventually, it will be possible to use a browser program to fly through the brain, zoom in on one area, examine it in microscopic detail, then call up genetic or other information about it. The project is supported in part by a grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.
Although many of the programs developed at CIPIC run on powerful graphics computers or "clusters" of computers running together, the lab is increasingly using the Linux operating system.
"The advantage of converting to Linux is that we need cheaper computers," said Kuester. Using Linux, powerful virtual reality programs can be built and run on systems available off-the-shelf for around $2,500, he said.
The CIPIC Visualization and Graphics Research Group also includes computer graphics pioneer Nelson Max, who started working in the area in 1968 using an IBM mainframe computer, and Kwan-Liu Ma, who last year was honored by President Clinton with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. In early 2002 the team will be joined by Oliver Staadt, who is currently setting up a major virtual reality lab in Zurich, Switzerland.