ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Visual Tales from Mother Earth

By Rob Fatland

Visual Tales from Mother Earth

How is a geologist like a minstrel? Answer: Both sit around fires drinking and telling stories. Quite true! Though I admit I’ve never met a minstrel. But the point is this: Conveying scientific ideas, especially those involving complex datasets, comes down to storytelling; and the pinnacle of storytelling is telling a whopper that nobody believes, but that turns out to be completely true (ask Alfred Wegener).  With this little preamble in mind, I’d like to share some of our progress in adapting Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope data visualization engine to tell data-driven stories in earth science.  

I work on this subject—earth-science storytelling—at Microsoft Research Connections, and for me, a logical starting point is maps. As a young man growing up in Washington state, I loved to walk in the woods near my house, expanding my personal map with new discoveries. I became quite fond of maps as a result, particularly the blank areas at the edges (where there might be dragons). I think there is still much to discover and invent concerning maps themselves, particularly those of the digital sort.  This is where the data visualization engine comes in.

So just what is this data visualization engine? Now officially known as Layerscape, it began as WorldWideTelescope (WWT), an astronomical observatory housed within your PC. WWT tapped into massive archives of imagery across the night sky and across the electromagnetic spectrum. And it did something equally important: It led the way in tapping into the vast storehouse of information contained in our cumulative scholarly publications. In fact, it still does today. You can install WWT on your PC (for free), activate the Finder Scope, head off to an arbitrary location in the sky and search a bevy of databases, including SIMBAD (the Set of Identifications, Measurements, and Bibliography for Astronomical Data). SIMBAD gives you a list of objects beyond our galaxy visible in that particular corner of the sky. The salient point here is that this is a serious tool, a facet of technology in service to pure research. It reflects, in my mind, dedication on the part of Microsoft Research to try out things for the sake of doing something new and interesting and useful.

WWT then progressed beyond astronomy, so to speak, adding a pretty accurate picture of the solar system and a model of Mars, featuring the latest high-resolution NASA imagery. WorldWide Telescope also picked up a careful construction of the Earth, textured with fine-scale imagery courtesy of Bing maps. Now, with the telescope turned back around on ourselves, earth science has become the central theme in the next phase of WWT’s life. To help share this new phase we have done two things. First, we’ve created Layerscape, a digital ecosystem built around visualization and storytelling from earth science data.  Second, we’ve set up shop in the cloud to enable anyone and everyone to discover and explore what Layerscape can do.

A list of Layerscape features takes quite a while to describe, so I’ll content myself by highlighting just two components here. By the time I’m finished, I hope you’ll think “Hey, this is nifty,” and go take a look. Scientific storytelling over maps and charts is what we’re after, and we hope to help scientists do this in a way that is new, interesting, and useful.

The first feature of Layerscape I want to describe, Communities, is built into the Layerscape website and into the WWT application. At the Layerscape website you will find content categories (Life Science, Climate, and so forth) that organize existing content. The communities feature, by contrast, lets Layerscape users build structure around their own ideas. You can create a community around any idea you like; for example, your school (Central Universe High), your area of interest (deep ocean liverworts), or your preferred method of gathering data (geosynchronous bungee-jump photography, if you like). Once your community exists, you can invite select participants to join, or you can throw it open to the public. You can add content—images, data files, maps, or really anything—and you can provide background information on what your Community is about.

Now suppose I come along and subscribe to your community. What does this mean? It means that when I run WWT (Layerscape Beta), I can see what’s in your community and in particular the WorldWide Telescope Tours, which are special narratives built around data. I can load and view these tours directly on my computer, and since the data is included, I can look beyond your narrative to explore the data for myself. It’s rather like expanding your YouTube movie by giving viewers their own camera, sound equipment, and all of your original actors.

So far so good, but how do we know this exploration of data will be worth the trouble? Well the short answer is, we have to give it a try. This brings me to my second of Layerscape’s many features, what I will call “Separation of Data from Perspective.” The idea is this: If you have some data that exists in three dimensions and has a timeline aspect, then you will want to animate it to see it unfold, probably at an accelerated or a slowed-down pace. To create such a visualization, you commonly must set your perspective—“where your eye sits”—in relation to this data. By contrast, WorldWide Telescope will play your data in time, in its virtual space, while you fly around examining it from different angles. This is distinctly not a movie; rather, to revisit our YouTube analogy, it is like having a play performed as many times as you like, while you are permitted to walk around the stage.

Case in point: At the moment I am working with Gavin Hayes’ models of subduction slabs, the enormous, 500-kilometer-thick boundaries where tectonic plates shove one another around and the Earth’s crust is recycled down into the deep interior mantle. That data is pretty interesting when rendered inside the planet, provided you can see it through the Earth’s surface. Today in WWT, you can not only see that data glowing down in the depths below, you can also fly down inside the Earth and look back up at it. The tour I’m building shows subduction slabs in relation to the recorded earthquakes that betray the slabs’ structure. Using the WWT time control, I can play time at 10,000 times fast forward and show the quakes popping off like fireworks all around the subduction slabs, and using my separate perspective control, I can watch this happening over and over again from many different angles. The idea is to give Gavin a view of his work that he’s not had before, in a way we hope will change how we explore and come to understand our ever more complex data. With any luck, he’ll get some whoppers out of the deal. The preliminary results are all available at the Layerscape website, so if this sounds at all nifty, I hope you’ll take a few minutes and have a look as well.   

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