In 1993, Kary Mullis won the Nobel for his invention of polymerase chain reaction, the chemical Xerox machine that makes thousands of copies of tiny strands of DNA, a breakthrough that jump-started the biotech revolution. The biochemist, then based in Berkeley, freely admitted he conceptualized this advance while under the influence of the mind-altering drug LSD, which helped him visualize the complex chemistry three-dimensionally.
These three examples center on the power of visualization — that ability to “see” something from a different perspective, a spark of insight that pares away mountains of extraneous details and distills seemingly impenetrable puzzles down to their essence. But now we’re in the era of big data, which harnesses the computing power of massive databases with bytes measured in teras (trillions) and petas (quadrillions), combined with sophisticated algorithms that can grapple with problems on a once-unimaginable scale. While this numbers-crunching ability promises to greatly accelerate the pace of scientific discovery, we’re suddenly buried in an avalanche of information.
Immersive environments — 3-D virtual reality worlds — can help us make sense of this in a tangible way. Big data collects such a vast amount of information that it’s difficult to see patterns. Using computing power to translate data into something that can be seen and heard makes it easier to understand. “Scientists and engineers can work with their data, perceptually and intuitively, the way artists do,” says JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, creator of the AlloSphere. It is perhaps the most advanced of these immersive environments, housed on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
These electronically simulated worlds of sight and sound cut through a lot of the noise of big data, and they enable researchers to synthesize, manipulate and analyze large data sets in a way that is easier to comprehend and digest, providing unparalleled insights into the whole picture and how each individual piece fits in. “We have so much data that we need these bigger lenses to get a full picture of what’s really going on,” says Andrew Johnson, director of research at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “These kinds of environments are lenses to look at data — the modern equivalent of the microscope or telescope.”
Pooling massive amounts of data allows patterns and trends to emerge that aren’t apparent in small, individual studies, and the applications are virtually infinite — think Moneyball, the 2003 best-selling book about how the perennially cash-strapped Oakland A’s used analytics and baseball stats to scout overlooked talent. Another example: In 2013, it took number-crunching algorithms, sifting through terabytes of data, to spot the distinctive signature of several Higgs boson particles. Physicists could finally identify them. Medical scientists, on the other hand, are crunching billions of data points culled from millions of patients about genetic mutations that make people more vulnerable to diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. They combine this information with sequences of the proteins those bits of DNA produce. (Proteins are the body’s workhorses that control every cell.) This information is used to concoct more targeted therapeutics and more precise diagnostics using biomarkers — in a patient’s blood, saliva or urine — that signal the presence of a disease.
Immersive environments like the ones you’ll see in the following pages allow scientists to watch a tumor grow, observe molecules binding together — or even see a re-enactment of the Big Bang and witness the transformation of the universe over billions of years. Rudimentary versions of these environments have been around since the 1990s, but with today’s technology, scientists can sink into even greater realism and visualize more with sharper resolution. This immersion is used in disciplines as diverse as medicine, physics, neuroscience, green technology, structural engineering and archaeology at universities, government research agencies and in private industry all over the world.
“Originally, we created these as an educational tool for visualizing concepts and ideas — in place of a blackboard and hand waving — to help people see things they never did before,” says Thomas DeFanti, a research scientist at UC San Diego’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, and a pioneer of virtual reality systems. “But the newest technology gives you the feeling of true immersion that makes for a completely riveting experience.”