When data becomes too complex to describe or even imagine, try bouncing it off a wall. But not just any wall. Measuring 14-by-8 feet, this giant behemoth is known as the VisWall (a product of Visbox, Inc.) and it can help researchers visualize some of the most complicated scientific concepts.
The VisWall appears much like a screen you might want to buy for your home, but it can't be found in a store. You have to go to Tufts University and a place called the Center for Scientific Visualization. Lionel Zupan, director of Research Technology Services, helped bring the VisWall to life.
"You can immerse yourself in your data without casting a shadow," he explains, standing in front of a churning tornado. "And you can do that in 3-D. This software and the VisWall have 3-D capabilities."
Put on the 3-D goggles and you're engulfed in a 3-D version of a churning tornado, courtesy of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. What better way to demonstrate the creation of a tornado? Eat your heart out, Hollywood!
"You can try to describe the birth of a tornado in words, but the images speak for themselves," says Zupan.
The VisWall uses two Sony rear screen projectors to display a picture more than four times the resolution of the best high-definition television (HDTV). More than four times! Faculty and students from many disciplines use it. For example, Professor Caroline Cao and her team developed software so that medical students specializing in surgery can one-day practice their surgical techniques on the big screen before ever touching real-life tissue.
Zupan stands in front of the VisWall holding a pencil-like object, referred to as a haptic device, that is used to guide the surgical instruments on the screen.
"I can feel the texture," says Zupan. "I can change instruments and can actually cut and grab the tumor."
Mathematician Boris Hasselblatt went to the wall to get a fresh view of a model that forecasts the population growth of certain animals. Even though he has looked at pictures representing this model for well over 20 years, when he bounced things off the wall, he saw something he had never seen before.
"What's apparent," says Hasselblatt as he stands next to the model that towers over him on the giant screen, "at this scale and this resolution and detail and being at eye height as well, is that all the curves are leading [to a point] right here."
Those curves provide some order in chaotic conditions that make any long-term population predictions beyond this point next to impossible.
"What this wall did was it made something click that I had not previously perceived, even though it was right in front of me for those 20 years," he explains. "That's one of the great things about this wall; it will get people to see things that are otherwise hard to see."
The simulations and animations just scratch the surface of the wall's potential. Imagine all the uses and what it will be like when we can get one of these babies home!