Big picture, big data: Swiss unveil VR software of universe

LAUSANNE -- It has been said that the final frontier is rarely closer than this, at least not literally.

Big picture, big data: Swiss unveil VR software of universe

LAUSANNE -- It has been said that the final frontier is rarely closer than this, at least not literally.

One of Switzerland's most prestigious universities has released open-source beta software Tuesday. It allows virtual visits to the cosmos, including past the Moon, Saturn, exoplanets, and galaxies.

Virtual Reality Universe Project or VIRUP, is a program that pulls together the largest data set in the universe to create panoramic, three-dimensional visualizations of space.

The virtual map was created by software engineers, astrophysicists, and experimental museology specialists at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL). It can be viewed using individual VR gear, immersion systems such as panoramic cinema with 3D glasses, planetarium dome screens, or simply on a computer for two-dimensional viewing.

Jean-Paul Kneib is the director of EPFL’s astrophysics laboratory.

Imagine Google Earth, but for the universe. Computer algorithms create images from terabytes and can produce images as close to one meter (about 3 feet) or as far as the infinite distance -- just like if you sat back and looked at the entire universe.

VIRUP is free and open to all. However, it requires at least one computer. VR equipment or 3D capabilities are best for visualization. It is intended to attract both scientists and the general public who want to see the data that they have collected, as well as people who are interested in exploring the sky virtually.

The beta version is still in development and cannot be used on Mac computers. The download of the content and software might seem difficult for less-skilled users. However, space on a computer will be important. A smaller version of the content that is available to the public is known as the "best-of highlights" version. It can be quantified in gigabytes. Astronomy enthusiasts with more memory may choose to download more.

The project draws information from eight databases, which include at least 4,500 exoplanets, millions of galaxies and hundreds of millions space objects. There are also more than 1.5 million light sources from the Milky Way. The sky is the limit when it comes to data potential: Future databases could include objects such as pulsars further into the galaxy or asteroids from our solar system.

VR games and representations are already available. For example, the Cosmos-gazing app on tablets allows for mapping of night sky with zoom-in views of heavenly bodies. Software like SpaceEngine from Russia provides universe visuals. NASA has also done smaller VR scopes of space.

The EPFL team believes VIRUP is much more than that. Data from sources such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in America, European Space Agency's Gaia Mission to map the Milky Way, and Planck mission to observe first light in the universe are all gathered in one place for the largest data sets.

There's more: The data from the Square Kilometer Array, a 14-country telescope project, could be counted in petabytes. That's 1,000 terabytes and 1 million gigabytes.

You can feel the trippy sensation of seeing the Moon from VR goggles. It's almost as if you are looking at a gigantic beach ball, floating very close to your body and watching the sun move from the bright side to the dark side.

Next, speed to the outer solar system, swinging by Saturn. Then, above the Milky Way swirling, flashing, and heaving -- exoplanets highlighted with red Imagine floating through tiny dots of light representing galaxies, as if you were a large and unimaginably powerful giant floating in space.

"That is a very efficient method of visiting all the different sizes that make up our universe, and it is entirely unique," says Yves Revaz (EPFL astrophysicist). "This project is a very important step towards the treatment of larger data sets that are coming."

Galaxies appear to be connected by light strands, or filaments, which look almost like neural connections that connect up clusters of lights like galaxies. The Cosmic Microwave Background, the radiation left over from the Big Bang -- is one of the most striking images.

Kneib said that the project was started because he was working on a 3-D mapping project of the universe. He was also frustrated by the 2D visualizations on his screen. Kneib was speaking in a nondescript laboratory building, which houses a panoramic screen, half-dome cinema with beanbag seating and hard-floor space for virtual reality excursions.

He said, "It is true that you can see the universe in 3D by showing these filaments and by showing these clusters galaxies which contain large amounts of matter, it really makes the universe seem real."

Updated Date: 16 October 2021, 15:37

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