Cosmus: Virtual 3D Cosmology in Public Science Museums

VR for Public Consumption Workshop at IEE VR2004 Conference (Chicago IL)

27 March 2004

R. Landsberg

Stephanie Andrews, Eric Jojola, Randall H. Landsberg, Joi Podgorny, Daniela Rosner, Mark SubbaRao, & Dinoj Surendran, Ronen Mir, Leo Kadanoff.

Introduction: The SCOPE project is a collaboration of the University of Chicago and SciTech museum in Aurora, Illinois that aims to give graduate students experience in presenting science and designing museum exhibits, and to help museums more effectively present scientific material. The Cosmus section of SCOPE is an interdisciplinary team consisting primarily of graduate students from University of Chicago focused on astrophysics and e-media with additional collaborators that include the Center for Cosmological Physics and the Adler Planetarium. Hailing from many backgrounds including graphic design, animation, physics, anthropology, social science, and computational linguistics, the team brings a highly interdisciplinary skill set to bear on the challenge of designing museum exhibits. This paper discusses specific experiences in developing cosmological content for the Geowall Virtual Reality environment. The Geowall is a low-cost (under $10K) stereo-projection system consisting of a computer, a pair of projectors and a screen.

The collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of our endeavor is a unique strength. Linking graduate students, forefront scientific researchers, universities, and museums brings a diversity of talents, perspectives, and resources to COSMUS. This dispersed diversity however, means that coordination, networking, and organization are key to success of the project. The leaders of the Cosmus group, Randy Landsberg and Mark SubbaRao, fulfill this vital role, provide continuity, and also exemplify people devoted to both science and outreach. Our project also benefited greatly from access to key researchers in astrophysics. Harnessing local science and resources is unique and powerful as the scientists can supply content, data, and expertise. Notably, viewing the GeoWall, at times displaying their own data, has increased the interest of local researchers in the project and in using Geowall as a tool for teaching and research. Our experiences indicate that 3DVR can aid researchers as well as museums, and that the two fields can interact in a way that helps both of them.

The majority of our team had little to no training in astrophysics. We had to allow time for understanding of subject matter in addition to understanding principles of exhibition design. One strength of this approach is that people who are distance from a subject are often best suited for describing it to a broader audience. In this way, we act as interpreters of the science. Our approach considers: what museum visitors want and need, what current research science fits into this context, and how we can be helpful in the process. Our products are not only exhibits, but also a process, which includes deliberations about museum presentation of VR material. This is the respect in which we can hope to be a model for other groups to come. Accordingly, we have begun web documentation of our work and the process following the lead of the GeoWall consortium.

Cosmology research offers many tantalizing concepts but the museums, their missions, and their audiences (very young at SciTech and more diverse at Adler) drive the process. SciTech's mission is "to engage people to experience and learn science and technology in a fun and interactive way." The mission of the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum is "to be the foremost institution for interpreting the exploration of the universe to the broadest possible audience". So, although we are teaching some key facts in this process, our projects are oriented towards exposing the visitor to some of the worlds explored by science and inspiring imaginations.

Our design approach has been modular. This allows exhibits to function for different audiences, venues, and exhibits. Our grandest vision links many smaller VR projects together through narrative scripts to create more compelling experiences for the museum visitor. The exhibit harnesses the power of VR to locate people in environments that make modern cosmological speculations concrete: flying through the actual large-scale structure of the Universe and dark-matter simulations of the Universe, walking on a real telescope site, etc.

The Cosmus team is naturally concerned with the quality of the exhibitions we create. Do they work? We have begun to evaluate the impact of our exhibits and 3D VR in general as a medium for content delivery. Very little research exists on the evaluation of and role of VR in museums. This is a key area to expand if we are to truly understand how effective this approach to informal educational environments is. From casual observation, one believes that viewers are having a fundamentally different experience with the content than they would be if it were in a different format. The audience members will exclaim when going inside 3D models, reach for the screen when things appear to float in space in front of them, and seem to be very engaged with the visual aspect of the presentation. However, without more vigorous standards for evaluation, the real nature of the impact the VR experience is having is difficult to determine. There are many variables and significant challenges in even coming up with appropriate evaluation questions and categories. Is there any way to tell what certain observed behaviors mean?

There is a real need for technological standards and communication. The Cosmus group found that significant time must be budgeted to explore, research, and understand technology issues. An abundance of software strategies both in production and display require research, testing, and discussion. In practical terms, the pre-existing skills sets of the team members were a major factor in determining the types of products were created. More standardization and coordination between VR producers and software creators could greatly enhance authoring efficiency and product quality. Additionally, authors could be more confident that their work would be widely seen. This is especially important if projects are to see wide usage in the future. We can not stress enough, the value of and need for more good written documentation about existing freeware and shareware tools.

Based on our experiences with the Cosmus project we see exciting areas for expansion. The National Science Foundation is very interested in conveying the excitement of cutting-edge research to the public while it is still fresh. With some coordination, networking, and training system in place, the transition from discovery to science museum could be streamlined. Additionally, there has recently been a great increase in number of and interest in low-cost VR environments like the GeoWall. The lower price-point of these systems is poised to make their proliferation steady over the next few years. Dissemination can be simple and widespread, museums and educational institutions could download new GeoWall material via the Internet. Within this pipeline, we recommend teams similar to Cosmus that help to contextualize and package the cutting-edge science in an exhibition-friendly manner - simplifying complex issues and creating digestible content.