Virtual Reality Lets DCO Researchers See C in 3D

New 3D, interactive visualizations developed in collaboration with virtual reality researchers at the University of California, Davis, are helping Earth scientists to make sense of complex, three-dimensional data sets.

At the recent Deep Carbon 2019 meeting in October in Washington DC, scientists grabbed and manipulated molecules, waded through giant networks of minerals, and walked through the air above an active volcano, simply by donning virtual reality (VR) goggles and holding a black handset.

The 3D, interactive demonstrations were created by Oliver Kreylos and Magali Billen (both at University of California, Davis, USA) as part of DCO’s Modeling and Visualization Forum. Three groups of DCO scientists are collaborating with Kreylos and Billen to visualize their data in new ways through VR technology.

“Visualization is a very powerful way of analyzing data,” said Kreylos. “You want to turn your data into pictures because it makes it much easier for our brains to understand what is happening.” 

VR Demo 1
Billen looks on while Karen Lloyd (University of Tennessee Knoxville, USA) and Razvan Caracas (CNRS, France) interact within a VR visualization. Credit: David Keith Photography

VR allows scientists to see and analyze data from 3D systems without the distortions that result from forcing data into a 2D representation, such as an image or chart. 2D projections inevitably create errors in an object’s size and its spatial relationship to other objects, in the same way that the original “Mercator map” showed Greenland and Antarctica as enormous, compared to their more accurate representations on a globe. 

But VR is not only a tool for making better visualizations. “You can also interact with the data,” said Kreylos. “You can reach into this 3D space that you’re seeing and work with 3D objects. You can manipulate them with your hands in a very natural and intuitive fashion.” 

Louise Kellogg (University of California, Davis, USA), initially spearheaded DCO’s Modeling and Visualization Forum in 2015. Kreylos joined the collaboration in 2017 and Billen stepped in when Kellogg passed away earlier this year.  

Kreylos has developed software for VR applications for three DCO-affiliated groups. Shaunna Morrison (Carnegie Institution for Science, USA) and the Data Science Team (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA) are using the system to visualize 3D networks of interconnected minerals to study relationships between different carbon minerals and their evolution through time

“I was shocked by how interacting with my data in VR gave me such a different perspective!” said Morrision. “I was already very familiar with my carbon mineral networks, but as soon as I put on the VR goggles, I started to see relationships and patterns that I hadn't been able to recognize before. I think it can be a powerful tool for data exploration and, ultimately, discovery!”

The Aerial-based Observations of Volcanic Emissions (ABOVE) team, led by Emma Liu (University College London, UK), is recreating gas emissions from active volcanoes based on data collected from chemical sensors carried by drones. The 3D visualizations show how emissions change over time, which may be useful in analyzing volcanic activity in the field in real time.  

VR demo 2
Joy Buongiorno (Carnegie Institution for Science, USA) experiences a VR visualization of a volcanic plume. Credit: David Keith Photography

The third application is an extension of a project first developed by members of the KeckCAVES project at the University of California, Davis, who built an immersive VR room and developed an interactive molecular dynamics visualization. Molecular dynamics is a way to digitally simulate the progression of chemical reactions. In the VR application, however, users can build their own molecules or watch a reaction proceed while zooming in or out or following and measuring individual atoms. 

A team led by Razvan Caracas (CNRS, ENS de Lyon, France) hopes to expand upon these visualizations to share them with public audiences to help them understand the structure of melts, carbon degassing, and other processes that occur deep within Earth. 

Commercial VR sets have now taken the place of the VR room built by KeckCAVES in 2005. “Until a few years ago, VR used to require a big investment,” said Kreylos. “These days, essentially you can go to Amazon and order a headset and a computer needed to drive it and then install the software that we have developed.” 

As the equipment necessary for VR visualizations becomes cheaper and more easily available, more scientists will be able to use the technology to see and analyze increasingly complex data sets. Judging by the reactions of scientists at the Deep Carbon 2019 meeting, where these three applications were demonstrated, it’s likely the VR technology will pop up more often in geoscience research. “I think the reaction was very positive,” said Kreylos. “People clearly got the idea that they could work with this and gain a new way of looking at their data.”

Interested scientists can learn more about using the VR software through Kreylos’ blog, with his guides to Installing Linux, Connecting an HTC Vive VR Headset, and Setup Instrutions for Vrui.


Main image: Kreylos interacts with a meeting attendee to manipulate atoms in the molecular dynamics VR visualization. Credit: David Keith Photography

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