NASA science center turns to 3-D

Aiming to make its scientific research more accessible to the general public, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center plans to develop 3-D, interactive presentations for its World Wide Web site to explain complex topics.

Marshall, which conducts research in such areas as astrophysics, microgravity science and Earth science, plans to sign an agreement with Digital Radiance Inc., Madison, Ala., to develop the new visualization tools. Digital Radiance has developed similar visualization software for military and aerospace companies.

Space center officials hope the new tool will help the agency explain the results of its research to the general public, where it can have a practical impact.

"Advancing the state of knowledge doesn't do the job [if it provides] no path to the society at large to make positive outcomes," said John Horack, director of science communications at the Marshall center's Science Directorate, Huntsville, Ala.

Horack said Marshall has a strategic emphasis on science communications. "Our first order is to focus on the 'science-attentive' audience," but traditionally this group has not been well-served, he said.

A key Marshall focus is how space science and space science research affect life on Earth, using research methods such as satellite observations of weather and oceans.

Along these lines, Digital Radiance envisions developing technology such as a video-like animation showing how energy from solar storms affects the Earth's magnetic field, said Ron Phillips, president of Digital Radiance. The animation also could show how phenomena such as the Northern Lights are detected by orbiting satellites.

The company creates visualizations using QuickScene, a technology designed specifically to create interactive 3-D content using Java, an Internet-based programming language.

A lot can be done with Web presentation technology, Phillips said. While some Java applications can appear "almost cartoonish," QuickScene creates more realistic images, he said. Technology "teasers" at his company's Web site, digitalradiance.com, allow viewers to manipulate a globe and walk through a simple virtual building.

The company's "you are there" technology, familiar to players of video games such as Doom, would appeal to teen-agers, allowing them "to interact with science information," Phillips said. The software can run on a standard computer and has "a stronger visual appeal than the typical use of Java," he said. Also, applications created with QuickScene do not require a browser plug-in to use.

Digital Radiance has a background in developing technology to convey scientific information in a readily understandable form. As part of a contract with Doppler radar technology vendor Baron Services Inc., Huntsville, Ala., Digital Radiance developed the means to display radar weather data in a real-time, 3-D format, Phillips said. The end result is displayed live on broadcast TV news, he said.

The Digital Radiance technology covers altitudes of up to 80,000 feet and shows disturbances in the air such as tornadoes, wind shear, lightning and heavy rain, Phillips said.

The goal was "to take complicated, 3-D radar information and display it so the general public can understand what's going on," he said. Typically, weather displays provide a top-down view, showing only what is closest to the ground.

Digital Radiance also has worked with Physitron Inc. to develop an "interactive, 3-D briefing tool," fusing information on military ground-, air- and sea-based assets, Phillips said. His company also developed a briefing tool that uses data from the Army's Multiple Launch Rocket System to feed an animated weapon status display.

Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va. She can be reached at cbadams@erols.com.

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