virtual reality for data visualization

Diving into data via virtual reality

Using a map to visualize information has its advantages. It places data alongside a corresponding location so viewers can see how the data impacts that area. But flat and even 3D visualizations are imperfect, according to Shayna Skolnik, the co-founder and CEO of Navteca.

Navteca is a three-year-old Maryland-based cloud services company that saw the potential for virtual-reality-based data visualization when it was helping NASA run climate models in the cloud. “Seeing the output of that data and the visualizations they were using gave us the idea that some of that might be compelling to look at in a 360, virtual reality environment,” Skolnik said.

Maps based on the Mercator projection, a common map format that splits the global down the Pacific Ocean, makes data points that are right next to each other look like they’re on opposite ends of the earth. This creates a potential to miss trends, Skolnik said. And 3D visualizations can fall short because viewers can’t see much of the globe at once, she said.

The company’s early virtual reality projects used visualizations similar to what NASA would show on its Hyperwall -- a video wall displaying multiple high-definition data visualizations of the space agency’s satellite imagery and data. The VR project was great for outreach, Skolnik said. It takes the potential of this large viewing screen and it uses cheaper hardware to create an immersive environment for users.

But Navteca thought a more immersive approach to data was possible. Working with NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office, the company built a proof-of-concept project that lets users explore data from the Discover AQ mission, which used aircraft flying in spiral flight paths over Colorado in 2014 to collect air quality measurements at different elevations. "The more accurate data scientists have at hand, the better society is able to deal effectively with lingering pollution problems," NASA officials said of the effort.

Navteca’s visualization of the mission data lets users interact with the flight paths (and the resulting data) by allowing them to select different locations and elevations along the spiral path flown by the planes. The system pulls the data from an ArcGIS server as users request different selections using hand-held controllers. The VR visualization shows the spiral path rising vertically from satellite imagery of Colorado, also pulled from ArcGIS.

Navteca uses a program called Unity3D to help build these VR apps, said company co-founder and CTO Ramon Ramirez-Linan. The software was created as an engine for making 3D games, but developers in the VR space have adopted it for helping create the stereoscopic point-of-view VR headsets use.

One of Navteca’s 360-degree videos was recently selected to appear in the Newseum as one of the current “Top 10” VR video projects. It appears alongside projects from Google, The New York Times and other content creators. The company is also working on a VR tourism app for Spain.

Skolnik said this is just the beginning for VR. The technology is where cellphones were about 10 years ago, she said.

“I’m really excited right now about where the technology is -- both with the hardware that’s available but also the potential for the practical applications of the technology,” she said. “I think we’re really on the cusp of this technology really becoming part of our lives.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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