Ka Chun's Random Quanta

The Worldviews Network

Jun 8, 2012 - In collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences and Google Earth Outreach, we have converted our A Global Water Story planetarium presentation into a Google Earth-based short film and interactive tour.  The film is about the challenges to the availability of freshwater on Earth, including climate change and increasing demand due to population growth.  However people around the world are developing innovative ways to make better use of existing water supplies.  Learn about water issues around the world, from Asia to the Middle East to North America, and how sharing education, technologies, and approaches to using water wisely can help us make the most of this limited resource.

Here is the interactive tour for Google Earth (you must have installed the freely available Google Earth on your computer).

May 24, 2011 - The Worldviews Network sponsored a community dialogue on A Global Water Story, hosted by Bob Raynolds and myself.  An audience filled the Gates Planetarium to witness a presentation on water challenges in the American West and throughout the world.  Roughly a quarter of the visitors stayed afterwards to engage in a public dialogue on water issues, led by our colleague Nicole Seltzer from the Coloardo Foundation for Water Education.

Feb 27, 2011 - The Worldviews Network is a new, NOAA-funded nationwide collaboration of scientists, artists, and educators developing best practices for using immersive virtual environments for ecological literacy education using live presentations, interactive scientific visualizations, and community sustainability dialogues.

The Worldviews Network core team consists of representatives from the DMNS, California Academy of Sciences, NOVA/WGBH in Boston, The Elumenati, and the NOAA Climate Program Office.

The genesis behind the Worldviews Network is partially the result of several different key phenomena:

  • We are living in the Anthropocene, a new geological era dominated by human-induced processes.  Human-driven global change is occurring faster than ever before.
  • At the same time, technologies for obtaining and visualizing bio- and geospatial data are also advancing rapidly.  New satellite platforms are giving us maps of global phenomena at multiple wavelengths, and beaming it back to us in near real-time.  New visualization techniques and software are allowing this data to be displayed and interpreted.
  • Information deficit models for educating the public about global change (including climate change) have not been successful.  These assume that people are merely information-deficient about global and environmentall change issues; once they are informed, then we can expect them to act on this information.  However multiple studies have shown that this does not necessarily occur.

The Worldviews Network uses a different approach, by combining interactive real-time immersive visualizations that are possible within modern digital planetariums, and a See-Know-Do approach to create education that integrates visual, systems, and design thinking, that allows audiences to visualize, comprehend, and address complex issues from a whole systems perspective:

  • Seeing: View visualizations about cosmic, solar system, and global Earth systems science that tie large-scale processes to regional environmental issues, and to show the complexity of global change.
  • Knowing: Comprehend the scientific understanding of complex Earth systems, and understand how they operate and influence each other in culturally relevant ways.
  • Doing: Address complex issues from a whole systems perspective by engaging ecological literacy organizations, and using design tools to implement regional solutions to global change issues.

More information about the Worldviews Network will be upcoming on this and the official site, www.worldviews.net.

Real-time Viz and the Gates Planetarium


March 8, 2011 - Computer-generated imagery can be lovingly and photo-realistically rendered.  The more realistic the scene that is generated, the longer it usuallly takes.  For visual special effects in movies, this can be minutes to hours per frame.  However at the other extreme, such imagery can be created so quickly that they can represent virtual environments that a user can interact with.  When this is done so fast that the user doesn't notice any lag, you have real-time graphics.  This is what the video game industry is built on and what allows us to navigate through simulations of the known universe in the Gates Planetarium.

In 2001, I started work at DMNS in the SciViz group, and was tasked to help build the software that would let us fly through the Solar System, and eventually the rest of the Universe.  At the time, there was nothing else out there that could do what we wanted the Gates Planetarium to be capable of.  We had to develop the software ourselves.

Luckily at the start of the 21st century, graphics hardware had progressed to the point where realistic full-sized flight simulators could be built (often for the military) using multiple computer projectors and banks of specialized graphics supercomputers.  The modern digital planetarium would take advantage of these advances in simulation, in how imagery was generated and projected, as well as how that imagery was generated to begin with.

The new Gates Planetarium would have stadium-style seats, with everyone looking in the same forward direction.  The dome and the seats would be raked (or angled) by 25 degrees, to give a more immersive feel.  Eleven massive computer projectors from the Barco company would be aimed at the inside of the hemispherical display.  Each would tile one-eleventh of the dome's surface.  When properly aligned, the eleven fragment images would tile together to give one (more or less) seamless fulldome image.

The visuals sent to the projectors originated from an Onyx 3800 graphics supercomputer, made by Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI).  At the time, purchasing one of these behemoths was the only way to create our virtual reality simulation of the known universe with the Cosmic Atlas software, which was developed in-house at DMNS by the SciViz team.  Chief developer and head genius on this project was Nigel Jenkins, a brilliant graphics programmer, lured from England.  I worked on the scientific programming -- ensuring that each star, planet, and moon were in their correct place.  Nigel wrapped it all together into an effective suite of visualization code, all the more impressive when you consider how few people were actually responsible for writing it.


By the time the Gates Planetarium opened in the summer of 2003, Cosmic Atlas was a usable simulation platform, not only in the planetarium but out in the Space Odyssey exhibit, where it drove the Orbits Table.  It also had a show production interface that allowed the SciViz team to create the Cosmic Journey show which premiered in the digital Gates Planetarium when it re-opened.



Since then, the computer graphics industry, driven by Moore's Law, has evolved by leaps and bounds, and the Gates Planetarium has changed with the times as well.  The SGI Onyx is no longer in our computer room, having been replaced by a bank of smaller, sleeker, and faster machines.  Graphics processors now available from companies like Nvidia and ATI provide more visualization crunching power than any of the "graphics pipes" from our original Onyx.  Even Cosmic Atlas has gone away, and replaced with the much more versatile Uniview that runs on our planetarium visualization PC clusters as well as the computer driving the Orbits Table in Space Odyssey.


But the original digital planetarium legacy remains.  The Cosmic Journey show has gone through four iterations now, incorporating revised content with each new edition.  There are still surviving sequences within that show that were created with the old Cosmic Atlas software.  Our experience with real-time software development has resulted in new research, collaborations, projects, and funding opportunities, from ALIVE to the Worldviews Network, and countless other projects in between.  That's quite an impressive record for something that we started building more than ten years ago on computer hardware that would be quite antiquated compared to what we have today.

Digital Earth

March 8, 2011 - This evening program takes place in DMNS' Gates Planetarium, where we use the immersive visualization platform Uniview to turn the planetarium back on ourselves.  Instead of looking out into space, we look down back onto Earth from a space-based perspective, simulating to some extent what astronauts would see.

Most of the Digital Earth lectures have been created in collaboration with and given by Bob Raynolds, DMNS Research Associate in Geology.  We have also brought on guest speakers, such as Chief Curator Kirk Johnson and Curator of Paleontology Ian Miller.

Check back for updated information and links on the lectures.


Past Lectures:

  • Feb 21, 2011: Earthquakes, Faults, and Plate Tectonics, with Bob Raynolds and Ian Miller
  • Nov 03, 2010: Energy and Fossil Fuels, with Bob Raynolds
  • Sep 01, 2010: Water, with Bob Raynolds
  • Jul 20, 2010: Pole to Pole in the Americas, with Kirk Johnson
  • Mar 10, 2010: Continents in Motion, with Bob Raynolds
  • May 19, 2009: Global Energy Resources, with Bob Raynolds
  • Mar 11, 2009: Highs and Lows, with Bob Raynolds

What are the highest and lowest spots on each continent (and Colorado)?
Places visited:

  • Africa
    • Mt. Kilimanjaro -- [ -3.0653, 37.3591]
    • Lake Asal -- [ 14.0167, 40.4167]
  • Europe
    • Mt. Elbrus -- [ 43.3550, 42.4392]
    • Caspian Sea
  • Asia
    • Mt. Everest -- [ 27.9798, 86.9218]
    • Dead Sea
  • Oceania / Australia
    • Puncak Jaya / Carstensz Pyramid -- [ -4.0833, 137.1833]
    • Lake Eyre -- [-28.2951, 137.6062]
    • Mt. Kosciuszko -- [-36.4500, 148.2667]
  • South America
    • Aconcagua -- [-32.655556, -70.015833]
    • Laguna del Carbon -- [-49.577778, -68.35]
  • North America
    • Mt. McKinley -- [63.069444, -151.007222]
    • Badwater Basin, Death Valley -- [36.232683, -116.778333]
    • Mt. Whitney (highest in lower 48) -- [36.578581, -118.291994]
  • Antarctica
    • Vinson Massif -- [-78.525483, -85.617147]
  • Colorado
    • Mt. Elbert -- [39.11775, -106.445358]
  • Jan 13, 2009 - Long Faults, with Bob Raynolds
  • Nov 11, 2008 - Africa, Pakistan, Greenland, Argentina, Colorado, with Bob Raynolds
  • Oct 28, 2008 - Natural Hazards of a Dynamic Earth, with Bob Raynolds
  • Oct 07, 2008 - Rift Valleys, with Bob Raynolds
  • Jun 11, 2008 - Global Change, with Bob Raynolds
  • May 22, 2008 - Asia, with Bob Raynolds
  • Apr 16, 2008 - Africa, South America, and North America, with Bob Raynolds

Welcome to The Random Quanta.  I was trained as an astrophysicist but since starting at DMNS, I have spent much of my time learning about and working with immersive visualizations.  I still have a deep interest in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, and physics and you will find postings on those topics.  However you will also find info, links, and musings on visualizations, computer graphics, the psychology of immersive displays, art, astronomy education research, topics in formal and informal learning, climate and other types of global change, and many other related (and not-so-related) topics.

When you expand the accordion headings listed on the left side of this page, you will get more information about some of my projects, with perspectives that range from historical to research-related to educational and outreach.


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