Applying virtual reality to help scientists to see and handle their data is the aim of the Centre for Image Processing and Integrated Computing (CIPIC) at the University of California, Davis.
The centre 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 US.
‘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 visualisation technology at UC Davis, and to enable transfer of new inventions from the lab bench into industry, said Hamann.
Modern research generates huge volumes of data, 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.
The CIPIC envisage virtual reality being used to train doctors and surgeons, let car designers try out styles before building a vehicle, or 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 specially designed 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. According to the CIPIC this will let scientists literally walk around inside their data.
One major project undertaken so far is to build a visual atlas of the brains of humans and monkeys.
Researchers at the UC Davis Centre 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, and then call up genetic or other information about it.