Simulate this

From virtual time travel to dynamic manipulation, the UTS Data Arena will change the way we interact with data.

Ben Simons at the control of the Data Arena.Imagine you could stand in a room in Ultimo, and at the same time be shivering in an Antarctic snowstorm as the landscape morphs in response to climate change.

This is just one of many applications envisioned for the UTS Data Arena, a 360-degree interactive data visualisation facility set to open soon.

“It’s not just about vision and sound – it’s a truly immersive environment, a more human interaction with data,” Professor Hung Nguyen, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and IT, explains.

“For example, if we’re modelling the potential impact of varying levels of carbon emissions, we’re not just showing you melting icebergs.

We can drop the temperature in the room, and generate wind and snow – even the scent of the ocean.”

While the concept of visual and auditory feedback in interactive data visualisation already exists, these additional effects – which run to fog, mist, aromas and lighting effects – is what sets the UTS Data Arena apart.

“We’re essentially blurring physical and virtual reality,” adds Professor Nguyen.

Located in the new UTS Engineering and IT Building on Broadway, the Data Arena will give researchers an opportunity to bring their data to life, seeing and interpreting it in ways that are sure to inspire and excite them.

By aggregating data from any kind of digital device – from mobile phones to transport cards and fitness apps – researchers can work visually with industries to find patterns and solve problems. The implications on fields such as health care, transport planning, the arts, social sciences and more are incredibly broad-reaching. “Put simply, it’s very hard to understand a spreadsheet if you’re just looking at numbers,” explains Ben Simons, lead developer on the project.

“Representing that data as imagery through animation and sonification allows us to see not just the state of the data, but how it’s changing. We can explore the data set, and move around in it.”

“Sound often seems one-dimensional, but in the Data Arena we have 14 speakers around the circle,” says Simons. “We can actually place the sound where the object is.”

Six 3D-stereo video projectors blend the image for a seamless three-dimensional panorama. Behind these, six computers work in tandem, their workload shared through the use of Equalizer – open source software initially developed in Switzerland and used in the Blue Brain Project, where scientists are reconstructing a virtual brain in a supercomputer for deeper understanding of the brain and of neurological diseases.

This is another one of the unique features of the facility: using open source software. This means users are at liberty to take the fundamentals of the existing source code and tailor it to their own purposes. That effectively makes the Data Arena a living organism.

“There are developers all around the world constantly improving and modifying the source code, so there’s daily updates,” says Simons.
“It’s truly collaborative.”

The 3D stereo video projectors of the Data Areana.Part of the open source agreement is that any changes to the source code are shared. “From a pedagogical point of view this is brilliant, because if we have a student that wants to drill down into a particular area, all the source code is there. They can learn how it works and modify it, improve it, and pass that back into the community.”

“It’s almost a philosophy, a movement in software.”

It has even captured the imagination of Sydney-based visual effects studio, Animal Logic, which is producing a short film to showcase the Data Arena’s incredible capabilities. The Data Arena presents an unparalleled opportunity for UTS to enhance its own research capabilities across a broad range of disciplines – everything from mapping the path of parasitic bacteria to fashion design – as well as that of its industry and government partners.

Simons and his team are working on data pipelines – essentially templates that users can download, then substitute their own data so it can be transformed to geometry and visualised in the Data Arena. He says this user-oriented access, rather than relying on ‘gatekeepers’ of the technology to facilitate each stage of the project, means the potential for scaling is enormous.

“It’s the difference between a shop and a supermarket. Rather than waiting in line to be served one person at a time, each person can take all their ingredients straight to the checkout – the Data Arena – to visualise it.”

Story by Jenifer Waters
Photography by Kevin Cheung