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Software Development Goes to the Movies

Visualization In Movies and In Science

In the movies, you get spaceships and planets. But those same techniques applied to scientific data yields scientific visualizations that let researchers see things they never could have before.

—Larry Yaeger

Is there a pattern to these software innovations in moviemaking? Yes. Many of the technologies come under the heading of fundamental processes of synthesizing images, or visualization. And the connection between movie special effects and scientific visualization was there right from the start.

In the early 1970s, Bernard Chern at NSF launched a program to support work on computer systems for modeling objects in three dimensions. This was a discipline in which, according to Herbert Volcker, who started the computer model program at the University of Rochester, "there were no mathematical and computational means for describing mechanical parts unambiguously... There were no accepted scientific foundations, almost no literature, and no acknowledged community of scholars and researchers." Under the impetus of the NSF (and maybe the hope of winning an Oscar), this situation was changing rapidly. By the mid-1980s, NSF funded four organizations specifically to help scientists visualize data. One of these organizations was Digital Productions, a company better known for producing special effects for television and the movies. But under NSF encouragement, DP became responsible for some of the first really good three-dimensional visualizations of scientific data.

"Everything from the world of movie special effects was pressed into service," according to Yaeger, "hidden surface removal, lighting and shading, texture mapping, transparency, bump mapping, you name it."

Visualization was changing the way scientists thought about their work. "Scientists started being able to see the output of their simulations of galaxy formations, black holes, and the like," Yaeger says. And just as movie techniques were being adopted in scientific visualization, techniques from scientific visualization were feeding back to the movies. "[C]omputational fluid dynamics, such as drove those scientific simulations, drove the motion of the atmosphere in the planet Jupiter seen in the movie 2010." (Yaeger, who is one of the leading researchers in Artificial Life and teaches at Indiana University, worked on 2010, and was later the technical consultant on Terminator 2.)

By 1991, the field of computer visualization was exploding. "The field had gotten so big, with so many specialties, that no one could know it all. No single research lab could do it all. Graphics hadn't just become broad—it was increasingly interdisciplinary," explains Andries van Dam, director of NSF's Science and Technology Center for Computer Graphics and Scientific Visualization.

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