UW Professor Helps Scientists Analyze Their Research in 3

March 6, 2013
Woman wearing virtual reality gear
Amy Banic, a UW assistant professor of computer science, focuses her research on how scientists and academics can better interpret and use data through interfacing with 3-D environments, visualizations, virtual environments and virtual humans.

For as long as she can remember, Amy Banic has been fascinated with human-computer interaction and virtual reality. That fascination has become the basis of her scholarly research -- and all in 3-D.

Banic, a University of Wyoming assistant professor of computer science, specifically focuses her research on how scientists and academics can better interpret, explore and analyze data through interfacing with three-dimensional environments, such as immersive visualizations, virtual environments and virtual humans.

“Immersive visualizations, often displayed using a stereoscopic display (what mainstream refers to as 3-D), allow scientists to interpret volumetric or 3-D data, and gain new understanding through those types of visual representations that they may not gain from the raw data alone or displayed on a 2-D display,” Banic says. “With the added immersion and dimensionality, there are additional interaction challenges than with your typical 2-D desktop PC environment. My work seeks to design new three-dimensional user interfaces and investigate how we can make it easier for researchers to use these tools so they can benefit from the advantages of the immersive characteristics of 3-D.”

Collaboratively speaking

Use of computing clusters, Geyser and Caldera, at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) will enable her to test her interaction techniques and evaluate their performance. Banic seeks collaborations with National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientists, scientists in other fields at UW and other visualization experts. Banic already has existing collaborations in place at Idaho National Laboratory and Kitware Inc., a company that creates and supports open-source visualization software and state-of-the art technology.

She will make their research applications more interactive and visual. The results of this 3-D interaction can range from providing more explanation for a researcher’s data to allowing for different analyses of the same information to looking at information over a particular period of time.

“Sometimes data sets, especially spatial data, are really large. When you transfer that into graphics, especially at a high resolution, it’s demanding on storage and computations,” Banic says. “The supercomputer allows the transfer of that data into graphics more quickly and, therefore, enable certain types of real-time interaction and analysis capabilities with a visualization that you may not otherwise be able to perform in real time.”

Banic plans to offer a 3-D visualization course for UW computer science students. The course has potential to make use of storage space on Yellowstone, the nickname for the NWSC. This will provide computer science students, as well as other UW students, experience with “big data,” she says.

“Our big-data program in the Department of Computer Science will give future scientists some breadth in high-performance computing,” she says.

Banic also plans to help UW researchers on campus, through use of the campus cluster or ARCC (Advanced Research Computing Center) that came online in the IT Data Center last fall.

“Depending on the researcher’s goals and the data itself, we can determine whether it is more appropriate to use the cluster or the supercomputer,” Banic says.

Making immersion easier

Either way, Banic also works to make the process easier. With researchers at Idaho National Laboratory, UW’s Department of Computer Science has worked to investigate the role of touch-based interaction for menu control in immersive visualizations.

Typically, a user can move a “six degrees of freedom device” to change his or her view or move the data along a set of X, Y and Z axes, which make up a coordinate system in three-dimensional space. A user can translate or change the position of the image on any of the three axes, and also can rotate or change the orientation of the image on the three axes, Banic says. This allows a scientist or researcher to see various 3-D angles or views of the research; cut away data to see only a portion of it; or watch all or portions of data unfold in real time.

However, much of the menu control can be performed in 2-D, instead, and take advantage of the easy-to-learn touch interfaces, so complexity can be reduced for the user, she says.

Speaking in relation to this project and others, Banic says, “Our work will allow scientists to concentrate less on learning how to use the interface and focus more time on what is displayed in the (3-D) environment, which can lead to better discovery and analysis.”

Studying the makeup of molecules, volumetric data collected from MRI, data collected on liquid or air flowing through a space, or LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data that show representations of land in an environment would be prime examples of research that could be viewed in more detail with 3-D images updated in real-time as you explore the data, she says. In addition, abstract data, such as social media groupings and crossovers -- viewed in a 3-D format -- may have advantages as well, Banic says.

Once the Shell 3-D Visualization Lab in UW’s new Energy Innovation Center is functioning, Banic envisions further collaborations with Idaho National Laboratory utilizing large-scale, immersive displays.

And like a number of movies shot in 2-D that probably should not have been converted to 3-D (“Clash of the Titans”), Banic says there are cases where data in 2-D is better reported in that format, such as charting the price behavior of stocks in the market using technical analysis.

A career spark

Banic says her interest in this field started when she was studying computer science and art in college while earning her undergraduate degree. At that time, she realized that all of her projects included an interactive component.

“When I was thinking of graduate school, I wasn’t sure what to pursue,” Banic recalled. “Then, my professor asked me ‘What do you dream about?’ I knew the answer but, only after some searching, I realized this was a very important research area. I realized this was something I could do for my career.”

Additionally, through participation in this research, UW students following suit are acquiring a similar unique set of skills that are in high demand in today’s job market. Several students from her research lab have already quickly obtained exciting employment opportunities, Banic says.

While Banic has spent the bulk of her time collaborating with other scientists on interaction problems dealing with smaller datasets through 3-D imaging, she says the availability of the NWSC supercomputer has her considering new problems to solve that would incorporate the use of 3-D user interfaces.

“I have a few ideas of problems I would like to investigate. It (supercomputer) will enable me to begin work on those types of problems, work I could initiate with other faculty members as well,” she says. “These are problems that not just anyone could work on without access to these types of great resources, so I feel very fortunate to be a part of this exciting time at the University of Wyoming.”

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