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VR for Research: Not the Medium, but Delivering the Message

We have heard before about VR based schools, VR based colleges and informal institutions. Now, the first formal scientific organisation, the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics or MICA, has formed, entirely within the bounds of virtual environments.

A Group of MICA Researchers meet in Second Life. Credit: MICA

Formed by several teams of scientists and researchers from the California Institute of Technology, Princeton, Drexel University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MICA conducts professional seminars and lectures, together with international team work discussions, solely from within VR platforms.

Currently, they are based in Second Life, although that platform is far from ideal for their needs.

As of this past March, MICA had about 40 professional members and 100 members of the general public interested in learning about science, specifically astronomy. MICA is also establishing collaborative partnerships with the IT industry, including Microsoft and IBM, and plans to further develop industrial partnerships.

The hope is to eventually use the power of VR to perform visual analysis of horrendously large datasets, in a holodeck-like manner, zooming in or flying through the visual, 3D representation of leviathan amounts of data, and sharing in a way that the fixed spatial relationships of physical life just do not permit.

We've seen echoes of this with the Allosphere. The allosphere is a three storey high metal sphere surrounding an echo free chamber. Inside it is a single suspended bridge capable of holding twenty people. The sphere stretches away on all sides, above and below them.

Every inch of surface space on the inside of the sphere is part of the display system, connected to a mainframe which syncs every component into a single display. Those standing on the bridge feel the VR projected data unfolding all around them.

However, it is still a physical-world based project. They cannot reach out and directly interact with the data, bending it, changing it, flipping the perspective on a whim. They cannot flow their avatar into the data, and move through it on independent trajectories, feeling when paths collide. That is the power of a full VR, and that is what MICA are working towards.

All they really need now, is a VR capable of doing what they desire.

A MICA Conference. Credit: MICA

One of MICA's founders, George Djorgovski, stated. "Virtual worlds are already a very fruitful arena for research in social sciences and humanities, including sociology, economics, psychology, etc., they are already a superb educational and outreach platform, and should be used much more. We are trying to find out what else we can do with these technologies in the natural sciences, such as physics and astronomy."

"The slow adoption of these virtual reality technologies by the academic (or any other professional) community is probably largely due to a widely held misperception that this is 'just games,'" Djorgovski said. "This is incorrect; while these technologies got developed largely by the gaming industry, and there is certainly a lot of gaming going on, virtual worlds are something bigger: a general platform for all kinds of activities, ranging from entertainment to purely professional. Just like the Web itself."

"One can think of immersive virtual reality as the next generation browser technology, which will be as qualitatively different from the current, flat desktop and web page paradigm, as the current browsers were different from the older, terminal screen and file directory paradigm for information display and access."



Podcast: Tour the AlloSphere


Exploring the Use of Virtual Worlds as a Scientific Research Platform: The Meta-Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA) (PDF)

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