In one afternoon, you can dive into the Lake Tahoe basin, study earthquakes in New Zealand, and travel into the core of the earth – all from the safety of a single lab on campus.
This lab, established in 2005, is known as the W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES). Demonstrations of the lab’s technology are included as part of the UC Davis Centennial Exhibit at the California State Fair.
The KeckCAVES was a joint project by the geology and computer science departments, funded by a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation. The lab uses a series of projections onto three walls and the floor of a room to create 3-D images, which allow geologists to analyze data in a 3-D immersive environment.
“KeckCAVES is a virtual reality environment,” said Magali Billen, an associate professor in the department of geology. “It’s really very much like a complex projection device, but the key is that you have to take various images together and combine them in order to make what you see actually appear to be three-dimensional.“
Specially-designed glasses are worn to transform the projected images in the KeckCAVES into 3-D images.
“As soon as you put [the glasses] on, [the image] all of a sudden pops away and it looks like it is just floating there,” Billen said.
The original purpose of the KeckCAVES was to meet the growing needs of geologists in conducting data analysis.
“We work with complex 3-D data, not just observations that we take from the earth but also output from simulations that we run trying to understand what is happening in the earth,” Billen said.
This data ranges from the study of the effects of earthquakes to analysis of microbialite rock structures.
“One of the things that motivated me to start thinking about the KeckCAVES is the idea of being able to virtually go into the earth’s interior and see the area that I’m studying and see the data that I’m working on,” said Louise Kellogg, a professor and chair in the department of geology. “Since I can’t do it in reality, we can use virtual reality to go there.“
Prior to the construction of the KeckCAVES, researchers were limited to looking at their data on single-plane surfaces.
“We’ve traditionally been restricted to looking at maps and plotting information on maps, or making slices of the interior and looking at them on a flat computer screen or on a flat piece of paper,” Kellogg said. “Using the KeckCAVES allows us to use what our eyes and our brains were built to do, which is live in a three-dimensional world and interpret information that’s coming at us with depth perception. [The KeckCAVES] enables us to use that depth perception to see the full picture of our data.“
By studying their data in the 3-D environment, researchers are able to extrapolate information from 3-D models that they were unable to access before.
“The way that we are using the system [at UC Davis] is very much like an analytical instrument,” said Oliver Kreylos, a staff researcher at the Institute for Data Analysis and Visualization in the department of computer science.
“It is not so much about making pictures and then the picture is the final result … but it is about using the pictures to get a result – what’s the distance between x and y, what’s the density of my material, what’s the structure of this particular feature we are looking at,” Kreylos said.
For the State Fair exhibit, the use of the KeckCAVES technology was recorded and is presented on a flat screen using 3-D technology.
“The idea for the State Fair was to use the software that we already have and use the data that we already have, but instead of using it in a scientific way, we just talk about the results we got from using the data,” Kreylos said.
While the 3-D immersive technology exists in other places in the world, the KeckCAVES at UC Davis is distinct because it is integrated into scientific research.
“Most of these [CAVES] … are used to do computer science research but then they never actually make it into applications in sciences,” Billen said.
Unlike other versions of the technology, the KeckCAVES also utilizes tracking devices to naturally move through data sets.
“There is this constant feedback between the computer system and these little trackers, constantly telling the software where the user is standing and where the user is looking,” Billen said. “If you want to grab the earth, you point at it and you grab it. You don’t go off to some other dialogue menu box and say, ‘I want to move the earth.‘”
UC Davis researchers involved in the KeckCAVES have many long-term goals for its use and development. One of these goals is to increase the accessibility of the technology.
“All of our software is free for people to download…. The same software that we run in this CAVE will run on my desktop,” Billen said. “One of the goals is to just make this more available so that people are able to get as much information out of their data as we are.“
“My goal is really to try to make it as cheap as possible … so that everybody can use it at some point,” Kreylos said.
Researchers are also trying to improve the techniques for moving through data, so that it more closely resembles realistic interaction.
“[In the current technology], you can’t walk, because you would run into walls, and so [we] have to start developing ways that would give somebody the sense of moving large distances through the data,” Billen said.
Another goal of the researchers is to create a method for analyzing data sets as they are being created.
“It would allow [researchers] to not just passively watch the model results come out, but actually then feed back onto the model and influence the way the model is evolving,” Billen said.
Since its construction, the purpose of the KeckCAVES has changed and expanded as the earth scientists and computer scientists continue to work together to improve the technology.
“Once you know how a tool works you get better at using it,” Billen said. “This really opened up avenues of understanding that we didn’t expect.“
SARA JOHNSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.