Art, Science, and Engineering Come Together: The AlloSphere
JoAnn Kuchera-Morin Invents a New Way to Process Data
"The AlloSphere. It's a three-story metal sphere in an echo-free chamber. Think of the AlloSphere as a large, dynamically varying digital microscope that's connected to a supercomputer. 20 researchers can stand on a bridge suspended inside of the sphere, and be completely immersed in their data."
So begins JoAnn Kuchera-Morin of the University of California at Santa Barbara during the demo of her invention at a TED.com presentation. By combining the talents of artists, composers, programmers and engineers, Professor Kuchera-Morin has built an amazing new device for visualizing scientific data. Her team converts scientific data such as Atomic Force Microscope and FMRI information that is linked to visual representations. While the dynamically varying super-computer translates this data into visual and audio representations, from inside the AlloSphere teams of researchers can immerse themselves in the simulation and discover new patterns of data.
From the macroscopic world down to the spin of a single atom, the simulations come close to quantifying beauty as one sees and listens to data being reported as varying tones and shapes that correspond to physical changes within the system. Like a realtime virtual reality chamber, one can interact with the scene and zoom in and out of different levels and study the patterns of change.
Metaphor and Simulation meet Quantified Science
Often the ability to make unexpected connections between apparently diverse sets of information is the hallmark of creativity. Links between art and science are sometimes viewed as superficial, but in the AlloSphere we begin to see their intimate unity. By connecting actual data variances with corresponding tones, one begins to use more faculties of analysis than the linear view of semiotic presentation, allowing novel associations to emerge.
The ability to think in metaphors keeps creeping up as the key-factor in studies of the creative process, and in the AlloSphere we may see why. Patterns -- or the presentation of information -- are not limited to the medium in which they arise; one may translate one form of expression into the another, as in the case of digital patterns which become translated into visual or audio streams, or Morse Code which is decoded as text. Even our brain itself works on this principle, translating rhythms of bone fluctuation in our ears into electronic pulses to be decoded by the brain, or likewise the eyes transmitting signals from the retina. By linking data from various systems to corresponding tones and shapes, one may perceive patterns that were not apparent in the mathematical or linear form of algorithms.
Case in point: Dr. Kuchera-Morin's colleagues in the Center for Quantum Computation and Spintronics use lasers to measure an electron's decoherence. Her team makes a mathematical model, and the composers attach tones to the data, so that one actually hears a representation of quantum information flow. Because the information is stimulating new brain areas (musical, visual) aside from the mathematical , they are learning new relationships which weren't apparent before the translation.
From a subjective point of view, the audio and visual representations are stunning, beautiful, and elegant. I am simply amazed -- but not surprised -- to witness biological and quantum data being translated into exquisite music and visual representation.
Thus begins a new phase of understanding information! She calls upon the scientific and artistic communities to visit the AlloSphere at UCSB, and discuss new ways to explore complex data as it unfolds in time and space. The AlloSphere is a unique device bringing together the best of art, science, math and engineering. I, for one, can't wait to get the personal tour!