NCI’s expert scientific visualisation team is developing a virtual reality (VR) experience to let researchers dive right into their ocean datasets. The VR experience, developed alongside ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes researchers, allows them to see in amazing detail the flow of water in some of the world’s most significant ocean currents, including the East Australian Current and the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic.

The experience is based on the exact same models that the researchers currently use to understand water circulation, heat exchange, nutrient transfer, carbon uptake and many more environmental variables. Becoming more deeply immersed in the motion of water and see how it changes over time provides a powerful new way to understand these incredibly complex datasets.

Currently, the data produced by ocean models is analysed through graphs and spreadsheets. But it makes a lot of sense to represent physical data in a visual, interactive medium. By putting on a VR headset, you can almost swim through the ocean and explore its key features, like different water temperature layers or ocean currents.

This allows you to much more easily fathom the complexity of the ocean systems, without the need to understand all the technology that makes this possible. NCI handles all of the computing power, data organisation and model development needed to assemble these datasets into such a tangible and interactive form.

NCI is developing our experience with VR technologies as a brand new way of interacting with scientific datasets. Whether it is for looking at meteorological activity, plate tectonics or tree growth, VR opens up a new way of interacting with higher dimensional data – from extremely small to global scale, or from fast to geological timescales that would otherwise be difficult to interact with in a tangible way. It also opens up the possibilities of using new kinds of data in completely unexpected ways.

Through our long-term understanding of effective scientific visualisation techniques, and now combined with VR technology, we are allowing researchers to look at their data in new ways. This augments the tools we use to help researchers get the most information possible from their models and data, which helps to raise the questions that will become part of future scientific discoveries.

This research highlight was originally published in the 2017-2018 NCI Annual Report.