How to Build a Data Visualization Lab: Interview with Mark SubbaRao, Adler Planetarium

Last month when I was in Chicago I had the thrill of visiting the Space Visualization Laboratory Director at the Adler Planetarium (which I wrote about here). Visiting the lab, however, raised more questions than it answered. I am so appreciative that Mark SubbaRao, the Lab Director, agreed to address them for us below. (Mark not only directs the Lab but is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago and produces skyshows for the Planetarium.)

Mark, so what IS a Space Visualization Lab and what path lead you to become its director?

Our Space Visualization Lab is a place where scientific visualizations are created for a variety of innovative displays. So we have high resolution tiled displays, immersive displays, stereoscopic displays. Some of these visualizations are for shows in the planetarium or our 3D theater, others for exhibits, and others are just experiments or something to help a researcher.

Doug Roberts and I started the lab together — he was the initial director and I led the development of visualizations for the lab. After he moved on to another role I took over the directorship of SVL.

Is the lab designed to use visualizations to teach science or to also teach the art and science of visualizations?

That’s a good question. I’d estimate 80% the former and 20% the latter. From the onset we’ve tried to do both but the focus has really been on using the visualizations to teach science. Still people really enjoy hearing about the process or just watching it. The other day I was programming an interactive visualization while we were open. I got a lot of interest and questions – I also found out it was hard to program and talk at the same time (I didn’t make much progress that hour).

It’s been almost six years since you first opened. How have the visualizations in the room changed over time?

Well, we have a lot more visualizations. Some of the ones we started with (cosmic ray air showers, the orbits of stars around the black hole at the Galactic Center) are still used frequently in presentations. But I’d like to think the newer ones are getting better as our skills improve. The Astrovisualization field is certainly advancing. Better tech (like the Kinect) has really improved the way that we interact with the visualizations.

Of course, this is not just a room of visualizations, but a room of interactive visualizations. What’s the theory behind why interactive technology is central to the experience?

Well mostly because it is fun. The SVL’s assistant director, Julieta Aguilera, is a big proponent of embodied interaction. The gravity simulator we created is an example of this, as this was an app he had early on where you would view the sky in different wavelengths depending on how fast you waved your hand.

It was hard to wave fast enough to see gamma rays, after doing that you wouldn’t forget that they were high energy. I’ve seen the value in embodiment myself using the Kinect with Worldwide Telescope during my presentations in the lab. Since I started using my hands to find things I have a better sense of where objects are on the sky.

Digital games have emerged as a powerful form of interactivity, and are often science-based simulations. Have you explored bringing games-based science visualizations into the Adler?

Not very much. I am quite excited about the potential for games to teach science, but somewhat less so in the museum environment. The reason is that a good game is a challenge to figure out and we usually don’t have enough time in our environment to set up a complex scenario and let it play out. What has worked well for us is bringing in game elements, timers, scoring even competition in what is otherwise an exploratory task.

Let’s go back to the early development of the Lab. Where did the idea come from and what did it take to turn it into a reality?

Doug Roberts deserves credit for the idea. We had been acquiring equipment, a cluster-based tiled display from a now defunct Technology Research, Education and Commercialization Center (TRECC) and a portable 3D projection system we were using to give demos at Adler and around town. Those demos were really successful so we thought we could bring into the museum proper. Doug presented the idea to our former president, Paul Knappenberger, and Paul was all for it. We wound up combining a mini exhibit space that was disappearing, a storage closet, and a walkway to the boiler room to create the SVL. One challenge was that all the telecommunications for the Adler came through that storage closet – that is why we have the center column the room (we call it the tardis).

Let’s talk money. What does it cost to create the type of interactive visualizations I experienced? Perhaps contrast one of the low-end with one of the high-end visualizations. And please feel free to totally geek-out on us with the details.

Its all over the map. In SVL we try to do as much as possible with commodity hardware. At the higher end we have the touchtables which run about $8K and $18K respectively. On my wishlist is this new 84 inch 3D display with 4K resolution, that runs about $16K. Some of the really fun stuff is pretty cheap though. For example we’ve built an app using a $99 mindwave reader (you create the Universe by concentrating), and a demo illustrating the radial velocity detection method for exoplanets using the Sphero robotic ball (also $99).

Are there other museum-based Science Visualization Labs?

There was one at the Exploratorium focusing on nanotechnology,, but it is no longer there. You know, I had to Google to find more There is one at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, also one at Harvard’s Peabody Museum.

From your perspective, why are Science Visualization Labs important?

Authenticity. From a museum perspective it would be great if we could do everything hands-on. Unfortunately that often doesn’t make sense for cutting edge science. It is especially true of computational science whose role will only grow in the future. Visualizations can be immersive and beautiful, creating a powerful experience for our visitors. You can present a complexity of information visually way beyond what you can do with words. Thinking about some of my work, the narration is often pitched at a sixth grade level but the visuals are hopefully informative for everyone, even researchers in the field.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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