Research scientists at NAU are no strangers to big data. In fact, big data is everywhere, and developing analytics tools that enable scientist to gain insights from complex data sets has been an ever-present challenge. Here at NAU researchers use big data in many fields, including climate science, water conservation, energy, and resource management, among many others.
By themselves, these data sets are meaningless without effective analytics tools to assist researchers in interpreting them. Visualization may prove to be the key in developing tools that allow researchers to quickly glean information from these complex data sets. The confluence of big data, gaming technologies, and virtual reality promises to create new methods to analyze and interact with big data.
Turning complex data into meaningful insight can be accomplished by using gaming engines and immersive media. Data visualizations can now be interactive, intuitive, and dynamically changing based on input from a user. This allows the user to quickly visualize relationships among many things, interact and explore data sets through interactive visualizations, and use storytelling to convey ideas to stakeholders. NAU researcher Dr. Rushforth works extensively with data sets involving groundwater in Australia and the vulnerabilities of certain water systems. He recognizes the importance of using 3D analytics tools to visualize complex data sets. “Interactive data visualization, like VR, has the potential to help people better understand complex relationships by allowing people to engage with data in new ways,” says Dr. Rushforth. Being able to manipulate complex data sets gives users the ability to see the direct results of any adjustments and identify patterns, trends, and relationships within large data sets.
One of the IVR Lab’s current Earth Science projects, “Burning Buried Sunshine,” deals with visualizing the earth’s ecosystem. Users can manipulate a model of the earth, adding or subtracting man-made carbon emitters such as coal factories, cars, and industrial agriculture across the earth’s surface to visualize how current human behaviors, combined with earth’s natural carbon cycle, are affecting the earth’s ecosystem. It is hoped that visualizing the effects that man-made and natural earth activities have will lead to a greater understanding of the earth’s ecosystems. “The goal of Burning Buried Sunshine is to equip a viewer to really feel the push and pull of environmental ‘balance’ in an intuitive, tangible way,” says Victor Leshyk, a science illustrator at NAU working on the project. “Our virtual simulation brings something that is otherwise vast and abstract—the planet’s whole carbon cycle—down to a human scale.” Presenting these ecological data sets visually is crucial to help students, professors, and researchers form a more complete understanding of humans’ impact on the earth.
Other researchers across campus are exploring VR’s potential to support data visualization in various disciplines. One such field is social psychology, where VR has the potential to compile social data into a more concrete visual experience. Dr. Heidi Wayment, a social psychologist at NAU, expressed her interest in the possibilities of VR to help compile, analyze, and visualize social data. She envisions a “virtual social network” where users can visualize and understand all the connections in their lives, which will foster a sense of community and belonging among people who may feel isolated. Dr. Wayment also sees VR as a therapeutic tool that has the potential to help people respond to emotional triggers and regulate their emotional responses.
Immersive media allows users to quickly and effectively glean emotional and intuitive information and share findings with colleagues and experts across various fields. And with visualization through immersive media, complex data sets can be condensed in a way that allows for scientists to quickly understand large data sets. “It’s not just about visualizing data in as many different ways as possible – it’s about visualizing data in the most meaningful way possible.” says Dr. Rushforth. Big data requires analytics tools that make meaningful data possible. Virtual and augmented reality is a technology that promises to deliver big insights to researchers at NAU.