NOAA sphere looks at data in 3-D

NOAA's Science on a Sphere

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants business partners to help it commercialize home-grown technology that simplifies science data on a planetary scale.

In a request for information posted May 28, NOAA officials said they seek partners to further develop its Science on a Sphere system. SOS uses computers and video projectors to display animated geophysical and atmospheric information on a large, fiberglass globe.

According to NOAA, the spherical system can make it easier for people to understand Earth-based science data. Scientists working with traditional computers usually break data into smaller sets that can be displayed on computer screens. The information is the same, but it is harder to recognize patterns on a global level.

A map of the entire Earth can fit on a flat screen, but not without distortion. That's why the relative size of Greenland, for example, changes between an atlas and a globe.

But most geospatial software is for traditional computer displays. NOAA officials hope the SOS project changes that limitation. Its sophisticated software can convert a range of scientific information into a format that the globe can then display either singly or combined. It can also incorporate other kinds of data, such as global satellite imagery.

The result is a highly accurate view of global phenomena that observers say surpasses other display systems.

"It really is spectacular," said Richard Conti, executive director of the Nauticus museum in Norfolk, Va., which could be one of the first SOS beta sites. "When I first saw it, I thought the globe was actually in motion, until I saw it was a dynamic projection."

"As soon as I saw it I knew I had to have one," he said.

SOS will allow the museum to set up public exhibits that will "get into the more complicated earth science stuff," Curtis said. Such exhibits could show the movement of weather and water vapor and even the effects of continental drift on the Earth's formation over the ages, he said.

Displaying data on a sphere, without the usual flat-screen distortions, has already produced surprising observations, said Sandy MacDonald, director of NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory (FSL), which has been developing SOS for the past three years.

For example, he said, even many meteorologists such as himself did not realize the full impact of some conditions, such as how wet and dry zones in the tropics related, until they saw them next to each other on the SOS globe.

For now, SOS will primarily serve educational purposes in such places as museums and schools, said MacDonald, who conceived the idea for SOS in the mid-1990s.

But one group from the Pentagon mentioned how SOS could give quick, comparative surveys of areas of immediate interest to the military, such as Iraq and the Middle East, he said.

"For those such as the military or large organizations with hundreds of offices or sites around the world, this way of being able to quickly take in the whole global picture is unbeatable," MacDonald said.

Although other systems project 3-D simulations, to "get the immediacy of 3-D," a real 3-D dynamic Earth would be the best way to go, said Fritz Hasler, leader of NASA's Goddard Earth Science Visualization and Analysis Laboratory.

"I was really blown away by NOAA's SOS," he said. "It has all of the brightness, dynamic range and resolution that's needed to do this correctly. It looks spectacular in a dark room, and survives limited light exposure very well."

The SOS hardware, while high-end, is not exceptional. The computers are dual-processor Intel Corp. systems "bought straight off the Web," said David Himes, a senior software engineer at the FSL, as are the four video projectors, each of which casts images onto one quadrant of the fiberglass sphere.

The system's real power is in its software, written at FSL, which takes information from several sources and creates data slices that are then recombined for display on the SOS globe. To create the seamless illusion of a planet in motion, synchronization of these slices has to be kept at the sub-millisecond level, Himes said.

The SOS system can convert nearly any data for use, said Chris Torrence, a senior software engineer for Research Systems Inc., whose Interactive Data Language visualization tools aggregate the datasets and convert them into a format for display.

"The conversion is very fast," he said. "You can take an entire set of data and convert it all at once instead of having to work on just one piece of data at a time. It's designed to run on anyone's desktop PC."

SOS is not yet capable of dynamic overlays of real-time data, Himes said, though the intention is to build that function into a future version of the system. The ability to zoom in on certain parts of the display also will come later, he said, probably in the next version of the software, due in October.

That version will add at least an unattended mode of operation, Himes said. Currently, the system requires a computer operator to sit in on presentations and flick through the datasets according to speaker cues.

"We want to automate all of that, and have the audio merged with the presentation itself," he said. They are working to make the whole package as attractive as possible to a commercial partner, he said.

NOAA wants to push commercialization of SOS as fast as possible, MacDonald said, and given the experience the agency has had with similar efforts, he thinks it could be done by the end of 2004.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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Science on a Sphere

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Science on a Sphere (SOS) system uses high-speed computers, projectors and advanced imaging techniques to create an illusion of a planet, sun, moon or any other celestial body. NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., has been developing SOS for the past three years.

The spherical system makes it easier for people to understand Earth-based science data, according to NOAA officials. Four projectors cast rotating images on a sphere to re-create the effect of Earth in space. Images known as datasets come from information collected by satellites. Currently, there are datasets that depict the world's deserts in contrast to plains and forests.

For now, SOS' primary use is for educational purposes in places such as museums and schools.

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