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Data to Insight

When the number crunchers have finished calculating, the scientist must then make sense of the mountains of data produced. The solution: scientific visualization, the process in which data is represented in dynamic images in order to reveal its ins trinsic patterns. The result: insight into data -- its transformation into information, then knowledge.

Born in the 1970s and '80s from the twin technologies of computer graphics and high performance computing, scientific visualization has attained maturity and is now widely employed in almost all fields of science and engineering.

But Grand Challenge computations spit out tremendous amounts of data. Billions (and soon trillions) of bytes of data are generated and must be navigated and understood by the scientist. Doing so will increasingly rely on new types of interfaces to view and interact with data beyond the confines of the computer screen. After all, our brains are wired to navigate physical space in 3D, so why not information space as well?

Enter virtual environments. In these simulated environments, computer-generated, multi-sensory information is presented to the viewer though wide-field diplays. The viewer's motion through the data is tracked in realtime and the display is continuously updated. Immersed in imagery and sounds, the viewer can intuitively gain insight into data, whether simulated or observed.

Some virtual environment systems, such as the CAVE, will even allow viewers to interact with supercomputers or instruments, change a simulation or measurement as it's performed, and share their insights with each other. There's no doubt that virtual environment technolgies will profoundly affect the way science is done and communicated.

Ultimately, any researcher familiar with the mathematics and physics of a given problem, but not trained as a computational scientist, will be able to sit down at a computer, pose "what if" questions -- changing the mass of a black hole or the amount of m atter in the universe, or controlling how distant stars are imaged by a radio telescope -- see what happens as the calculations actually evolve, and quickly receive an answer complete with animations of the results.

But there's no need to wait to experience what this might be like. For many years now, computational scientists, together with graphics experts, have been using scientific visualization to create a treasure trove of movies. You can explore some virtual w orlds right now by making a selection below.

Want to catch a ride to the boundaries of a black hole?

Movies from the Edge of Spacetime

Or how about taking a trip back to the beginning of the universe itself?

Cosmos in Fast Forward

Return to Virtual Environments (MetaComputer exhibit)
Return to Navigating the Digital Cosmos (Cosmos in a Computer exhibit)
Return to To the Third Dimension and Back (SpaceTime Wrinkles exhibit)
Return to More Efficient Software (Whispers from the Cosmos exhibit)

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NCSA. Last modified 11/15/95.