Seeing the data: eResearch’s first steps to a visualisation service

2 Nov 2016 - 11:45

Researchers in all disciplines are using advanced technologies to collect massive data sets previously unimagined. But collecting the data is only the start. It needs to be interpreted, and when it comes to data analysis a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. eResearch is working on solutions to allow researchers to look at their datasets in a way that is visually pleasing and easy to understand.

Oculus Rift


Image courtesy of Oculus Rift

You can’t help but feel a palpable sense of excitement as you move through the narrow passage between two great walls of rock, knowing that just around the corner is one of the world’s most remarkable archaeological sites: the ancient city of Petra, in Jordan. As you come around the corner, the intricacy of the exterior, carved out of rose-red rock, is striking in its beauty. You walk up the steps and through the great archway, to enter a massive room that may once have been a marketplace where traders hawked their wares, as far back as approximately 300 BC.

This whole experience takes place from an office chair in the Menzies Building on UCT’s Upper Campus, with an Oculus Rift strapped to the head. In fact, even if you were to travel to Jordan to visit Petra, you would only be able to stand outside to admire the ancient building, as this is a restricted site, with access granted to only a handful of scientists, officials and dignitaries. Fortunately, the Zamani group were given full access to the site when they visited it as part of their larger project to record, map and create three-dimensional (3D) models of the world’s heritage sites, with a particular focus on those in Africa.

As part of his master’s degree under the supervision of Professor Heinz Ruther (principal investigator of the Zamani Project), Stephen Wessels used Unity 3D game-engine software to take the digital 3D models the group had already created of Petra, and create a walk-through environment of the archaeological site.

“On a two-dimensional platform, viewers are limited to looking only at what is displayed on the screen; but wearing the Oculus Rift, you can look around and see all there is to see,” says Wessels.

Some might spot the enormous camel standing on the left as you ascend the steps to enter the building. Others may be more interested in the intricate carvings on the outside of the building, and want to examine this in closer detail. Or perhaps the experience of standing inside Petra looking up at the beautiful red rock out of which the city was carved is so breathtaking, you want to stay in a single spot for 10 minutes. The Oculus Rift allows for this full range of experience. Watch the video.

With the Petra project behind him, Wessels is now working (as part of his PhD) to create a fully immersive display of San rock art – one that offers an additional educational element, with a description of each piece of art popping up when a viewer looks closely at it.

The Zamani group’s hope is that they will not only preserve the continent’s heritage sites, but open up access to everyone, all over the world.

The Iziko planetarium goes digital


Image courtesy of Iziko Museums

The Iziko planetarium is set to enter the next era of technological development, thanks to a partnership between UCT, the Department of Science and Technology, the University of the Western Cape, and Cape Peninsula University of Technology, among others.

Up to mid-2016 the much-loved planetarium still sported its original ‘Star Projector’ technology that dates back to the early 1980s. But this is about to change as the Iziko Planetarium Digital Upgrade Project gets going, culminating in a state-of-the-art digital full-dome immersive theatre facility by early 2017.

This full-dome digital technology has become the norm for planetaria worldwide. There is also a move towards using planetaria for more than just edutainment; they can be data-visualisation facilities for researchers. The full-dome capacity will make the rendering and visualisation of big-data possible – providing a revolutionary tool for scientists in diverse fields to navigate through their data (especially large data sets) and interrogate it simultaneously. It will also contribute to developing skills to respond to both local and global digital transformation challenges.

By combining motion with 3D (effectively simulating 4D), researchers can ‘fly’ virtually through multi-dimensional visualisations, opening up whole new avenues of exploration in everything from planetary and solar-system science to geology, oceanography, climate and earth science, medical science, molecular chemistry and biochemistry, and even town planning.

Hlanganani Junction’s visualisation wall


Image by Jason van Rooyen

UCT eResearch, in close collaboration with UCT Libraries, has recently launched a visualisation wall in the Hlanganani Junction in the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library. This space – which boasts a 20-million-pixel research video wall – is to serve as a collaboration and engagement space for researchers in the libraries.

Researchers using the space will have access to Sage 2 collaborative software which allows researchers to bring their own devices – phones, tablets, laptops – and display their data on the video wall. The software allows multiple researchers to display their data, extracted information, visualisations and animations at the same time on a very large-format screen, and to use their devices to interact with the screen displays.

“This space can be used by researchers for interrogating data visualisations or having lab meetings, and will allow them to have joint poster sessions, display architectural diagrams, and even host collaborative art displays and music events,” says eResearch analyst Dr Jason van Rooyen.

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