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Design Takes on New Dimensions: Evolving Visualization Approaches for Neuroscience and Cosmology

HUNTER WHITNEY

The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky

The Brainis wider than the Sky

Forput them side by side

The one the other will contain With easeand Youbeside

EMILY DICKINSON, FROM THE BRAIN IS WIDER THAN THE SKY

The ability to perceive and understand the words you’re currently reading is made possible by signals flowing across synaptic junctions in your brain. In total, you have about 100 trillion of these synapses — a figure that exceeds all of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. For most of us, that’s just an interesting statistic; for neuroscientists and cosmologists, those kinds of numbers are a part of their work environment. Both fields share other commonalities, as well. Whether it’s the activity patterns among nerve cells or the interactions of stars and black holes, both disciplines explore physical objects and systems that don’t easily lend themselves to direct observation and experimentation. Increasingly, interactive visualizations[] such as that shown in Figure 7-1 can help people involved in these areas explore, analyze, and test the unimaginable.

A cosmic web of galaxies in a region of space 140 million light years across from a cosmological

Figure 7-1. A cosmic web of galaxies in a region of space 140 million light years across from a cosmological

simulation run on NICS Kraken (courtesy Britton Smith)

Within the past few years, emerging technologies are starting to redefine what can be seen, simulated, and explored in both neuroscience and cosmology. Whether it’s mapping the neural circuitry that drives thought or modeling the formation of galaxies, new tools are making it possible to see otherwise hidden processes at work. Advances in low-cost, high- performance computing hardware, including graphical processing units (GPUs), combined with distributed and parallel computing software are providing the vehicles and fuel propelling new design forward.

Meaningful visualizations depend on far more than just good visual design. They are the result of a process that integrates ideas and expertise from many different sources. To exemplify that point, the following three sections look at visualizations from a range of angles. The first section presents some visual and interaction design approaches, including using 2D and 3D representations. The second section examines the creation of simulations and models. The third explores the need for cross-disciplinary collaborations and drawing design inspiration from unexpected sources. This chapter includes examples showing the range of considerations that go into a display.

You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.

ROD SERLING, “THE TWILIGHT ZONE”

 
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