Date October 3, 2017
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Computer visualizations bring new perspective to science

Working in Brown University’s Center for Computation and Visualization, application scientist Benjamin Knorlein, here with visiting scientist Tom Sgouros, helps turn research data into virtual reality.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When a nationwide team of scientists earlier this year wanted to study populations of tiny phytoplankton, why did they invite Brown University computer visualization expert Benjamin Knorlein with them on the voyage? Because while the research vessel R/V Falkor could take them across the Pacific Ocean, only Knorlein’s mastery of virtual reality could put them inside a single drop of water.

Using data gathered from 3-D microscopy instruments aboard the ship, Knorlein created an immersive visualization in which scientists can not only see the plankton up close, but also move around among them to observe how they function within their environment. He made the experience available to scientists through systems ranging from VR goggles to Brown’s impressive YURT theater.

Knorlein, an application scientist in Brown’s Center for Computation and Visualization, says he enjoys helping researchers advance their science with the power of computer graphics.

Benjamin Knorlein
Benjamin Knorlein
Image by Nicholas Dentamaro

“Right now virtual reality has a great interest for society, but a lot of people don’t really see the potential it can have for science,” Knorlein said. “If you think about it, computation nowadays is more or less in every field of science. A lot of the data people are looking at are also inherently three-dimensional.”

Recently, for example, he collaborated with Beth Brainerd, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, to unveil new and improved software for capturing uniquely informative 3-D movies of the motion of animal muscles and bones.

With sophisticated data processing and visualization, researchers can literally see their research like never before.