Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory convert complex data into 3D digital visualizations to provide spatial and geographic context.
When the U.S. military interviewed more than 100 experts about conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the resulting intelligence was so extensive that analysts joked about needing executive summaries for the executive summaries. Central Command (CENTCOM) had compiled an eye-watering 1,000 pages of text: potentially useful — but daunting — reading.
To help navigate this information trove, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory converted the pages into a 3D digital visualization. Users could immerse themselves in the data using virtual reality (VR) headsets (such as Oculus Rift and Vive), discovering relationships and highlights by wandering through a simulated physical space.
The proof-of-concept effort, which brought together teams of social, computational, and data scientists from both inside and outside Argonne, was fittingly dubbed Project Noor, a word that means “light” in Arabic. The idea was that VR might be a more intuitive way to illuminate CENTCOM’s data and help surface insights faster.
The appeal of VR headsets like Oculus Rift and Vive is currently more in exploring destinations and dungeons rather than datasets. But as the technology improves and becomes ever more portable, it is drawing interest as a training and analysis tool — a way to augment the human brain in a world full of increasingly complex information.
“Humans are really the best at seeing patterns,” said Brian Craig, a systems engineer in the Decision and Infrastructure Sciences division at Argonne who worked on the project. “We’re used to seeing things in three dimensions — so we assumed that perhaps putting the data in a 3D format would shed light on some of the systems, allow for better pattern recognition and allow analysts to get more information out of the data.”
The CENTCOM interviews were analyzed by both humans and computers to tag people, places and organizations, as well as their relationships to each other. All of these snippets filled hundreds of rows in a spreadsheet. No matter how much the text gets “cleaned up,” Craig said, “You still end up with a lot of spaghetti strings on a two-dimensional display, in the end.”
Argonne’s job was to take all of these bits and pieces and integrate them within a 3D virtual space. Seen through VR headsets, which resemble opaque ski goggles, bits of the experts’ commentary are arrayed like stars in a constellation, with topics (e.g., Syria) leading to more subtopics (e.g., government, military, politics). At CENTCOM’s request, Argonne created one version of the visualization correlated to a geographic map, while another version simply appeared as hubs and laser-like vectors within a black space.
The Project Noor work was funded through Argonne’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, which is aimed at exploring new and innovative scientific avenues.
“The hope was that Argonne could leverage some of its computing power and some of its visualization expertise,” said John T. Murphy, a computational engineer in Argonne’s Decision and Infrastructure Sciences division who also worked on the project. In the past, the laboratory’s researchers have used such immersive visualizations on data related to transnational organized crime and global food insecurity.
Murphy noted that, like a large number of issues — from geopolitical conflicts to the spread of disease — CENTCOM’s data involved complex situations that had been discussed and analyzed by a number of experts and that had also generated a significant set of data. “The number of subjects to which we might be able to apply this tool is very large,” he said.
In the past, VR’s potential has been somewhat limited by technology: lagging headsets that induce nausea with a quick head turn or multi-wall “cave” displays that don’t offer any portability. Nimbler products are changing that, opening up new applications for the technology.
“A lot of the stuff that we would have wanted to do even 5 or 10 years ago would not have been possible, because the virtual reality goggles simply were not good enough,” Murphy said. “We’re better positioned now to apply the technology to a wider range of topics.”