Adler’s New Space Visualization Lab Features UIC Tech and Applications

Participants: Jason Leigh, Robert Kooima

Institutions: Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University

Chicago, IL

A new university-museum collaboratory including University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago to develop cutting-edge space science exhibits and enhance public education and outreach efforts for all participants.

CHICAGO - As high-resolution digital imagery captured by sky surveys and satellite missions continue to build bigger and better 3D maps of our galaxy, the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum is taking a modern approach to high-tech exhibit development that involves university researchers, museum-based scientists and the public in the process.

The Adler has formally opened its Space Visualization Laboratory Space Visualization Lab (SVL), a working laboratory on the main exhibit floor that features a variety of scientific visualization applications and display technologies - many of which came out of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL).

Adler astronomers Mark SubbaRao and Doug Roberts conceived of the SVL as the next level in technology-rich museum environments. Visitors can get a behind-the-scenes look at exhibit development and get to play with advanced display systems designed and invented in cutting-edge research labs like EVL. They will also be encouraged to directly participate in user studies involving both application and pre-installation prototypes during special public tours.

SVL centralizes and anchors Adler’s growing program of space science visualization and digital imagery exploration application development. The planetarium’s in-house scientific researchers work with several university laboratories, some in conjunction with shared faculty appointments or affiliations with university labs, and others, like EVL, when expertise and outreach goals dovetail. Of Adler’s eight Ph.D. astronomers on staff, four hold joint appointments on the research faculty at the University of Chicago, and two at Northwestern University.

Adler and EVL have been working together for several years; deploying EVL’s projection-based 3D display system called GeoWall for viewing stereo photographs from the surface of Mars, and conducting user studies of space-science-themed video games, but the establishment of SVL has formalized the relationship as a collaboration.

EVL Ph.D. doctoral candidate Robert Kooima, formerly a computer programmer at NASA, has been working jointly with Adler since last fall, teaching SVL researchers how to use his scripting language Electro, a user friendly software for developing graphical applications on tiled and stereoscopic displays; and to help test and debug two new virtual-reality applications: Mars Transporter, a user controlled virtual flight around Mars, and StarFlight, a tour of the constellations in the Hipparcos star catalog.

Mars Transporter was recently added to Adler’s suite of exhibits called Our Solar System. StarFlight will remain in the SVL for several months for more user testing before going into the Cyberspace Gallery, an all-digital educational themed area that exhibits flexibly updated space science content on plasma touch screens, hemispherical Ellumens VisionStations, and joystick-controlled exhibits.

Various next-generation displays systems such as EVL’s high-resolution tiled display wall will be evaluated for main show floor adaptability as well.

Tiled display walls are gaining prevalence in the academic community for networked scientific collaboration. Tiling LCDs creates an impressive ultra-high-resolution display that can be connected via ultra-high-speed research and education networks for fast data retrieval and viewing. In the SVL setting, the tiled wall is especially well suited for real-time exploration of high-resolution imagery.

According to SubbaRao, the advent of high-definition digital camera technology has revolutionized the field of astronomy. High-resolution imagery captured during space missions and sky surveys provide unprecedented access and insight into astronomical phenomena; however even more discoveries may be gleaned from the enormous amounts of other data gathered along with the imagery. Tiled displays enable researchers to view extremely large images along with related information to make informed decisions and discoveries.

Scientific visualization refers to a broad range of applications, and includes high-resolution digital imagery, virtual reality, and 3D animation and volumetric models. Using computer modeling and computation, raw scientific event data is converted into imagery that can be interactively explored. With numerous large-scale telescopes and satellite missions constantly generating scientific data and imagery worldwide, space science is a leading scientific visualization application domain.

While the development of advanced scientific visualization tools and techniques may be a common research pursuit of scientists at the Adler and faculty at a university graphics laboratory, their clientele are very different. Adler educates the public about space science through exhibits and guided shows in its planetarium, while EVL conceives, constructs and deploys high-end visualization systems to domain scientists who use visualization to analyze massive datasets.

Both, however, are challenged to offer people experiences - visual or interactive - that they can’t get anywhere else.

EVL researchers have been inventing and building virtual-reality displays since the early 1990’s, with complementary research in advanced networking, user interaction and collaboration. The breakthrough in advanced display technology combining these research threads is the 55-panel tiled display wall EVL built two years ago; the largest and, at 105 million pixels, the highest resolution wall of its kind at the time.

High-end graphics cards like those enabling the latest generation of gaming consoles can be fitted in the clusters driving the tiled displays to maximize performance computationally, which translates to millions of pixels on the display wall. Specialized middleware developed at EVL manages gigabit streams of image data and allows the user to scale, pan, zoom and otherwise explore massive datasets in a giant windows-like environment.

Kooima’s Mars Transporter application is an interactive scale model of Mars built using two NASA datasets: Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) terrain map data gathered by the Mars Global Surveyor; and high-resolution color imagery of the entire planet gathered by the Viking orbiter. Displaying an accurate terrain height map based on the MOLA’s 44,000 by 22,000 pixel dataset was a computer science problem requiring complex algorithms, but producing a highly accurate model was a priority.

StarFlight is an interactive virtual-reality exhibit to explore constellations. Kooima acquired and visualized the Hipparcos star catalog, and in collaboration with the MSCOPE museum science outreach group at the University of Chicago, mapped out three well-known constellations and programmed an environment allowing users to fly around these constellations in space.

SubbaRao says StarFlight is an ideal outreach project for ongoing testing in the SVL because it meets clear educational goals of communication, accuracy, and accessibility. “StarFlight communicates the tremendous distances between the stars and accurately conveys that constellations are just two-dimensional projections of a three-dimensional distribution of stars,” said SubbaRao. “And as an exhibit for both English and Spanish speaking users, I expect it’s going to be a big hit with our visitors.”

“The technology and knowledge transfer between EVL and the newly created SVL fulfills a valuable outreach component of our research,” says EVL director Jason Leigh. “Decades ago when we were learning science in high school we used telescopes and microscopes because those were the tools that scientists were actually using at the time. Today scientists are routinely using supercomputers, high-speed networking, high-definition cameras and advanced visualization systems to enhance and extend the capabilities of these instruments - these are the new telescopes and microscopes. It’s important that we begin to teach a whole new generation of future scientists how to use these tools.”

About the Electronic Visualization Laboratory
The Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago is a graduate research laboratory specializing in the design and development of high-resolution visualization and virtual-reality display systems, collaboration software for use on multi-gigabit networks, and advanced networking infrastructure. It is a joint effort of UIC’s College of Engineering and School of Art and Design, and represents the oldest formal collaboration between engineering and art in the country offering graduate MS, PhD and MFA degrees. EVL has received worldwide recognition for developing the original CAVE® and ImmersaDesk® virtual reality systems; and most recently the 105-Megapixel LambdaVision tiled display and Varrier autostereoscopic display. EVL is a founding member of StarLight and the Global Lambda Integrated Facility (GLIF), and with UCSD is a leading institution working on the NSF-funded OptIPuter project.

About the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum (
The Adler Planetarium - America’s First Planetarium - was founded in 1930 by Chicago business leader Max Adler. The museum has announced a new vision to be the world’s leading space science center. The museum will inspire the next generation of explorers by sharing the stories of human space exploration and America’s space heroes. The Adler is a recognized leader in science education, with a focus on inspiring young people, particularly women and minorities, to pursue careers in science.


Date: May 10, 2007 - Ongoing
Adler Planetarium - Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum

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