Geologists at the University of California, Davis, could soon be making virtual field trips to the depths of the Earth, the interior of earthquake faults and perhaps the rocky plains of Mars as a result of a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles.
The grant will be used to build and equip a room walled with projection screens to create the illusion of an immersive, three-dimensional environment. The facility, which is expected to be operating by mid-2004, has provisionally been named the Keck Center for Active Visualization in Earth Sciences.
"You can essentially be inside your data," said Louise Kellogg, professor and chair of the Department of Geology at UC Davis and a principal investigator on the grant. Studies planned for the center range from the structure of the deep Earth to the atomic structure of minerals, looking for traces of the first life on Earth or Mars, and geological mapping of inaccessible parts of the world.
"The geology department is at the leading edge in developing computational geoscience. We appreciate the Keck grant that will enable the center," said Winston Ko, dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.
Geologists are trained to look at surface features and make inferences about the rocks below, Kellogg said. Virtual reality allows researchers to take advantage of those skills by letting them build three-dimensional models of places they cannot otherwise go.
Kellogg studies the behavior of rock deep within the Earth, movements that give rise to earthquakes, volcanoes and continental drift. The virtual reality environment will make it easier to build and test large-scale models of the Earth's interior, especially when there is unevenness in the mantle material, she said. Kellogg will also use the system to look at how stresses are transferred between geologic faults and released after earthquakes. That information is difficult to represent in two dimensions, she said.
The new center shows the growing importance of computation as a third arm of science alongside theory and experiment. Based on their experimental data, researchers can build computer simulations that represent what they think is going on in a system. Then they can use the simulation to test their theories. UC Davis recently established the Center for Computational Science and Engineering, directed by Professor John Rundle, to encourage research in this area.
Rundle is also participating in the project with "Virtual California," a computer program he developed to simulate and predict earthquakes. Virtual California is part of QuakeSim, a NASA-funded project coordinated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech.
Virtual California can generate a historical record of earthquakes that looks realistic compared to the record of actual earthquakes, Rundle said. The next problem is to run the program forward and predict earthquakes over the next 2,000 years or so, he said.
The new center would allow such studies to be done in a more realistic way, he said.
Virtual reality tools are already in use in the oil and gas industry and in automobile manufacturing, but mostly as a "cool toy," said Oliver Kreylos, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Image Processing and Integrated Computing (CIPIC) at UC Davis. Those systems display data in three dimensions, for example to show investors the location of oil deposits or to test designs for a new car. But the applications used in industry don't allow much interaction, Kreylos said.
Instead, Kreylos and colleagues at CIPIC will develop applications that allow geologists to interact with their data while literally standing in the middle of it.
"It's a natural way to interact with your environment. You can use your hands to pick things up," Kreylos said.
That interaction requires close coupling between the numerical simulation running in the background and the visual representation of the data, said Bernd Hamann, professor of computer science and co-director of CIPIC. The new facility will also allow scientists from a variety of disciplines to develop next-generation visualization methods jointly with CIPIC researchers, Hamann said.
Computing power for the system will come from a "Beowulf" cluster, a number of standard PCs linked together to run as a single powerful computer. Similar clusters are already in use on campus for computational studies on air quality, superconducting materials and mathematics, Rundle said.
The complete project team also includes Dawn Sumner, Magali Billen, Eric Cowgill, James Rustad and Donald Turcotte, all from the UC Davis geology department.
The W.M. Keck Foundation, established in 1954 by the late founder of the Superior Oil Company, focuses most of its grant making on the areas of medical research, science and engineering. Including this donation, the Keck Foundation has given UC Davis close to $4.5 million over the last decade in the areas of neuroscience, structural biology and nanotechnology.