NASA goes Hollywood

Scientists use same software as Pixar to make data really come to life.

NASA is using the same software Hollywood studios use - software like Pixar's RenderMan and Autodesk's Maya - to translate complicated data into compelling video imagery, which often winds up on the evening news, the Washington Post reports.

"Visualization is that link between the flood of data coming down from space and the ability of the human mind to interpret it," NASA oceanographer Gene Feldman said. "That's the crux of the story. Better than most other groups in the world, they are able to take this fire hose of data coming down and turn it into images -- visual animation -- that then allows the general public to see this data in ways their brains can interpret and study."

NASA is getting slick, in part, because Hollywood keeps pushing the envelope. In a media world where people expect a talking potato head to look realistic, scientific visualizations can't look like they were rendered in blocks and triangles.

"They don't expect to see crudity," NASA's Horace Mitchell said. "They expect to see sophistication because they see it everywhere. In order for us to tell the story, we have to be sophisticated about telling stories and we have to use sophisticated technology to tell them."

The bulk of high-end video coming out of NASA comes not from the agency itself but from Global Science, a government contractor with $45 million in revenues. The NASA animation business is small potatoes, about $650K a year.

The scientists say that this is not all eye candy, either. High quality animations make large amounts of complex data easier to comprehend, so that better, faster decisions can be made.

Feldman, the NASA oceanographer, studies oceans from space. ... The only problem is that satellites collect a very large amount of complicated data. The visualization studio helps him make sense of it. Feldman has made animations of what happened to the ocean during the transition between El Niño and La Niña -- "it was the biggest phytoplankton bloom in the world ever observed," he said. He has animated Lake Michigan's microscopic plant blooms and a dust storm the size of Spain that blew across the ocean in the past few years. He has animated autumn in Boston, which roughly translates into, as he put it, "how life follows the sun."

Obviously, NASA isn't the only agency that could benefit from translating data into butt-kicking animations. Global Science's CEO says the software can better explain the human body to doctors. "What we could do is use movie techniques to give the doctor and medical staff more dynamic and accurate images to make a diagnosis," he said.

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