Advanced Visualization Lab Turns Science into Cinema

By Tiffany Trader

January 25, 2011

This week, a PopSci feature takes an in-depth look at the NCSA Advanced Visualization Lab (AVL) and the team of experts responsible for transforming the mysteries of the cosmos into eye-popping cinema. The lab specializes in creating grand portrayals of astronomical events, the kind of films usually screened in domed museum theaters. The 2010 imax film, Hubble 3-D, which opened to wide acclaim, contains sequences produced by the EVL.

Using the processing power of the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the lab creates high-quality, high-resolution, data-driven 3-D visualizations that are not just visually stunning, but scientifically accurate. AVL Director Donna Cox comments on the nature of the work performed by the lab:

“Visualization is a supercomputing problem when you have terabytes of data. A lot of places do not have the supercomputing power that we have, so we have focused on leveraging state of the art computer graphics tools and embedding them in a supercomputing environment where we can devote all these processors to the problems of visualization.”

Tapping into their passion for both art and science, the AVL team brings to life the extraordinary events of the cosmos. With 25 years of experience, they have learned a trick or two, often writing custom software from scratch in order to achieve a particular outcome. To be sure their reproductions are as authentic as possible, the team checks and re-checks their data, accounting for both physics and physiology.

Without the work of the AVL, the data would just be sitting in storage somewhere. As mentioned in the article, data “is meaningless if it can’t be represented in a way that makes sense, not just to scientists but to the public.”

The AVL remains committed to making visual sense of the complex world of astrophysics, but wants to venture into other discliplies as well. There are plans to move into the geosciences and life sciences and eventually to create visualizations that draw from both the humanties and sciences to shed light on global trends like migration.

Says Cox: “[It’s the] visuals that help us understand of the complexity of nature.”

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