The AlloSphere: Flying through a giant virtual brain?

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In her recent TED talk, JoAnne Kuchera-Morin described UCSB's AlloSphere, a new project that enables scientists to literally stand inside a three-story projection of their data:

The AlloSphere space consists of a 3-story cube that is treated with extensive sound absorption material making it one of the largest anechoic chambers in the world. Standing inside this chamber are two 5-meter-radius hemispheres constructed of perforated aluminum that are designed to be optically opaque and acoustically transparent. (source)

Scientists and artists can stand on a bridge through the center of this space, dynamically manipulating the visual and auditory data streams surrounding them. Sounds like a scene from Minority Report, right? Well, not quite.

Here's how Kuchera-Morin describes the Allosphere's goal:

We're looking for patterns. We're looking for beauty. The way that we appreciate beauty deals with the nature of complexity, uniqueness, subtle changes over time that catch you by surprise. It's something we look at as artists, and our scientists are looking for this too.

I was talking to a Nobel Prize-winning physicist on campus. And he said, "Why do I need this? My work is data. It's numbers." And I said, "Have you ever been working on a problem on your computer screen, you've been really stuck, and then one of your colleagues walks through your door, and from three and a half feet away says, 'That data doesn't look right'?" That's the value of looking for patterns in data. Patterns you can't see when you're up close.

We intuitively know these things. Cultures have been weaving these patterns, plowing these patterns, etching these patterns. This is what we are. (source)

I'm behind that 100%. While the human brain is remarkably eager to find patterns in the world around us - even spurious patterns, like faces on Mars or cryptic messages embedded in our iPod shuffle playlists - it turns out to be quite challenging to see new types of patterns in raw data. I've argued before that art can help us to make unexpected connections and reveal those patterns.

So is the AlloSphere a giant leap for intuition, the next big fusion of science and art? Watch the demo video and judge for yourself:

Okay. . . Honestly, I felt more like I was watching TRON than the latest scientific visualization technology. Ouch. (The resemblance of this project to the decidedly old-school Christian Science Mapparium didn't help, either).

Of course, this reaction is completely unfair: my expectations of visualization technology are way too high. We've been spoiled by the uncanny CGI fictions of films like Minority Report, not to mention video games, which aren't constrained by the limitations of real scientific data. Insofar as the AlloSphere is an authentic representation of actual data, it can't go beyond the resolution of its inputs. This makes me skeptical of the MRI application in particular: the voxels simply aren't granular enough to let you "fly through" a 3-story virtual brain and see any of the structures clearly. Hopefully as brain imaging techniques increase in resolution, flying through a virtual brain will become a reality. But for now, I'd have preferred the demo to move from small to large, and display the rudimentary brain data last, as a gesture toward the AlloSphere's promising future.

With respect to allowing new perspectives on 3-D models of physics and math, the AlloSphere looks like it has real potential. Kuchera-Morin again:

Similarly, some of my mathematician colleagues are working with 6-dimensional figures. What happens when your math starts to get so complex that you can't draw it by hand anymore? Scientists have such tremendously rich math data that the instruments they use now can't actually see it. You get measurements from it, but can you take those math coordinates that describe it and map it visually and sonically?

There are scientists now who have lost the ability to perceive their data. Now they might have the ability to perceive this data again through computers that have portals that let them see and hear their data, not just see a string of numbers. (source)

Now, this is interesting. If the AlloSphere were able to render higher-dimensional figures - perhaps through a time-lapse color-coded 3-D representation with added channels for sound, I'm not really sure - it would be incredibly neat. Would such a visualization help mathematicians make advances in their research? I don't know; I imagine it would depend on the individual and his or her idiosyncratic mental processes. But it's worth trying, isn't it?

Another potential application is education. Astronomers have long benefited from 3D projections, but biologists need them just as badly. It is pretty difficult for most students to visualize the cell movements central to modern developmental biology, like gastrulation, without some sort of animation or physical model. (Back when I was teaching college, I was assigned to teach developmental biology in a classroom with no projector or computer. It's an interesting artistic challenge, but hardly pedagogically optimal, to diagram the time-lapse migration of several sheets of cells using colored markers on a white board). Standing inside an interactive model of an embryo, a cell, a neural network, or an ecosystem would be a memorable learning experience that might permanently alter the way a student thinks about biology. I imagine faculty in other fields have similar challenges, and hope the AlloSphere's developers have plans to include educational applications in the project.

Read more about the AlloSphere project here.


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It reminded me less of minority report and more of the Stellar Cartography scene from Star Trek: Generations. It certainly has potential but I think we are more likely to gain insight and immersion with complicated data through virtual theaters instead of physical ones.

It is a very interesting mix of old and new tech, isn't it? I wonder why the designers didn't try to go entirely VR with this - perhaps they saw the shared experience (letting multiple viewers interact with each other inside the space) as an important part of the project?

I tend to agree with Palmer's comment above, about it's being a mix of old and new technology. Interestingly, something akin to this was discussed in Anthony Serafini's classic book THE EPIC HISTORY OF BIOLOGY -- he emphasized the idea that scientific results can be judged aesthetically as well purely empirically and quantitatively. This seems similar to Kuchera-Morin's comment that "We're looking for patterns. We're looking for beauty:

By David Fonier (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

Maybe I'm missing something, but is this not just a huge projection in a sphere of what could just as well be viewed smaller on a flat surface?

It seems a rather elaborate spectacle at first. There may be a hidden benefit to seeing a simulation projected on a non-flat surface though. I'm thinking of Tony Ousler's work here. His 'mouths projected on eggs' wouldn't have the same perceptual affect on a flat surface.

re David: Interesting. Mathematicians often mention the 'elegance' of a proof as a determinant.

By Joe Leasure (not verified) on 21 Apr 2009 #permalink

"I was talking to a Nobel Prize-winning physicist on campus. And he said, "Why do I need this? My work is data. It's numbers." And I said, "Have you ever been working on a problem on your computer screen, you've been really stuck, and then one of your colleagues walks through your door, and from three and a half feet away says, 'That data doesn't look right'?" That's the value of looking for patterns in data. Patterns you can't see when you're up close. "

I think this guy has been watching too many movies. Never happened to me.

It does kind of sound like a scene from a film, but it did happen once to me in college. I saw an equation on a white board and had a feeling it wasn't balanced, and I turned out to be right about the location of the error. The weird thing is I haven't had enough math to write such an equation myself or read the notation properly, so it really was some sort of gut instinct about the patterns I saw. Odd.